Guess What? Gifted Kids Can Have Problems Too

by Rita Templeton
Veja / Shutterstock

I could tell he was a little anxious by the way he scuffed the toes of his sneakers into the playground dirt, first one and then the other, as he sized up the group of kids playing on the equipment. “Do you think they would play with me?” he asked softly, his voice tinged with equal parts excitement and doubt.

“I’m sure they’d love to,” I reassured him with a squeeze. “Why don’t you go see?”

He shuffled away, with a slight reluctance at first, but his pace quickened as the happy anticipation of meeting new friends got the best of him. I watched nervously as he approached them, praying that this time he would fit in, even though in my heart of hearts I already knew the answer would probably be no. My son was bubbly and outgoing, but at barely 5 years old, he wasn’t your typical kindergartner. And as I heard the first words out of his mouth, I prepared myself for the inevitable.

“Let’s pretend we’re carnivorous plants!” he exclaimed enthusiastically, referencing one of his current favorite subjects, a borderline obsession. He watched documentaries about them for hours on YouTube, when he wasn’t watching his second favorite, a medical animation entitled “Shoulder Dystocia During Childbirth.” He gesticulated wildly with his hands, gleefully describing the wonders of flesh-eating vegetation. “I’ll be a Venus fly trap and you can be a pitcher plant — insects are attracted to their peristome and then slip into the pitcher and are dissolved by digestive enzymes!”

And just like that, he was losing them — as usual. Unsure of how to respond, the kids broke awkwardly away from my son’s impassioned monologue. His words trailed off, his imagination losing its sparkle, and his face fell. Damn it. Damn it. Damn it. Here he comes, I told myself as he shuffled back in my direction. Act cool.

“They…I guess they just wanted to play other things,” he reported, his tear-filled eyes belying his casual tone. My heart ached, as it had done so many times before on his behalf. My baby, whose intellect had somehow skyrocketed past his physical and social abilities, who could use “ludicrous” in the proper context but still couldn’t tie his shoes. I watched his crestfallen little face and reflected that, in many capacities, perhaps his giftedness wasn’t exactly such a gift. He didn’t ask for the loneliness of being ostracized by kids his age, yet here we were.

Like any mom, I was driven to help my son, so I consulted the internet. But I didn’t want to read a psychological document full of jargon like “asynchronous development” and “advanced cognitive awareness.” I was a worried mother, and I wanted to read advice from other worried mothers. Mothers who had been there. Mothers who had, hopefully, found solutions that they were willing to share.

I feverishly googled “gifted son having trouble socially” and searched until I found a page from a general parenting message board. The question was from a mom like me, someone whose son wasn’t fitting in with his peers. Downhearted and anxious, she too had sought help from an online forum. I was encouraged to note that there were dozens of answers to her original post, but as I scrolled downward, eager for information, I realized that they weren’t answers at all. They were outright attacks.

“Oh, poor you with your gifted child,” one poster virtually sneered. “Your life must be so hard. MY son is autistic and nonverbal. Walk one day in my shoes, and then we’ll talk about problems.”

“Seriously?” scoffed another responder. “I’m so tired of people acting like they have an actual ‘issue’ just so they can brag about their kid being gifted.”

This was my first experience with the animosity directed at the issues that gifted children face, but unfortunately, it wasn’t my last. My son is a middle-schooler now, and we have dealt with various forms of this over and over and over. The general public seems to labor under a hugely unfair misperception: that gifted kids are somehow immune to problems. That because they have advanced skills in some areas, they must be ahead in everything, in every social and academic aspect (when in fact nothing could be further from the truth; the term “twice-exceptional” refers to gifted kids who have significant learning difficulties).

Gifted kids, like any other, are susceptible to their own quirks and failures. They can labor under huge issues with perfectionism and anxiety, and experience physical and emotional side effects as a result. These things are real, and profound, and heart-wrenching for any parent to watch their child suffer through, but if your child suffers through these things while wearing the “gifted” label, it’s all too often brushed off, like their talents ought to make up for their shortcomings. Like everything in life should come easy to them just because a few things do.

It’s like saying if a kid excels at sports, he must be great at algebra, and at making friends, and at writing essays. In reality, anyone can see how ridiculous that is. And if he scores a D- on a science test, nobody would say, “But I thought surely you’d ace it, since you’re so great at sports and all.” And if his mom says, “Man, my kid is really struggling with science,” nobody would reply, “Pssh, that’s impossible. He doesn’t need any help with science. He’s great at sports!”

The word gifted doesn’t mean fantastic at everything all the time. Gifted children aren’t somehow above having very legitimate problems, and giftedness itself is not always “a good problem to have.” And their parents have the right to be concerned, just like parents of kids who have autism or dwarfism or ADHD or a deformity or a speech impediment. Because no matter what our kids are facing, we want to help — even if those issues are hidden behind a deceptively pretty label.