Gifted Adolescents

Independence and Relationship Issues in Intellectually Gifted Adolescents
by Deborah Ruf

(Published in the Mensa Bulletin, February 2004, and British Mensa Magazine, June 2004)

Adolescence is a difficult time for most people, but social and emotional issues are exacerbated in the exceptionally or profoundly gifted adolescent who discovers the needs for friendship connections, romance, and greater independence in school and home. Both my professional and my parental background made me aware of the difficulties many extremely intelligent young people have with making friends, feeling attractive to and understanding the opposite sex, and dealing with the powerful adults in their lives. The goals of this presentation and summary paper are twofold. First, we will review some of the issues of friendship and romance among extremely gifted adolescents and young adults; and two, we will touch upon some ways parents and counselors can appropriately guide adolescents toward appropriate friendships, romance, and independence. This is a summary handout paper; therefore I have not attempted to provide all background references.

Premise One: Extremely Gifted Differ in Many Ways
As background, it is necessary to discuss some of the ways in which exceptionally and profoundly gifted children and adolescents vary from one another. Due to these variances, solutions for how to help and guide them also vary. Significant intra-personal differences occur in the following areas:

• Male/female differences
• Personality type differences
• Levels of giftedness
• Evenness/unevenness of intellectual gifts
• Talent differences
• Physical appearance differences

Briefly, each of the above categories is real. In my own consultancy I have found that the one quality adolescents are looking for in adult authority figures is honesty. They are trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into the world’s big and small pictures. When we are not honest with them about how they differ from others, we complicate their own journey. We also undermine their trust and respect for any opinions or information we might give them.

There is ample research on the reality that males and females are different in many ways. Men never have to face their own possible pregnancy and childbirth or baby nursing. They never have to cope with hormonal changes that may undermine their ambition during their childbearing years. Society holds men to a different standard of success, too, and the pressure to succeed is different, and probably more intense, for our men. Another way males and females are different is in their adaptability or multi-tasking inclinations. As a group, females are more adaptable and better multi-taskers. Males are more prone to specialize than females. Such tendencies have implications in child rearing, in elementary schools, and in eventual career decisions and success. See articles and research by Camilla Benbow, David Lupinski, Barbara Kerr, and Sally M. Reis to get you started. Males and females have different sexual drives and interests, and as with the above-mentioned differences, not all are generated by societal expectations or stereotyping. Additionally, boys and girls have a different developmental task as they grow through their adolescences: boys have to differentiate themselves from their mothers in order to become men. While girls need to separate themselves from their mothers, as well, they do not need to learn how to become different to the degree that boys do. Extremely gifted young people, needless to say, are very cerebral; they ponder everything. They need information from the adults in their lives and guidance toward other sources of accurate information.

Our personality types, learning preferences, and interests all vary. An extroverted child may find it easier to socialize with agemates who are not intellectually her peers, but she may have sadness over not ever feeling really connected to anyone despite all her efforts. An introverted child may be less likely to struggle to fit in because he enjoys more solitary activities and a few chums who will join him in a video game. But, he, too, needs friendship, maybe a soul mate, and has few natural resources for finding any. Numerous websites and books, do an on-line search, exist for helping families determine their personality styles and preferences. Adolescents can learn a great deal about themselves, including ways they can view others differently while changing some of their own expectations for themselves and others. Parents can also benefit when they learn how their teenager may be completely differently motivated than they are.

The level of giftedness has a profound effect on how comfortable in different situations the young person will be, too. If the youth is part of a group, as in an advanced placement class, finding pals and receiving positive social feedback from classmates is more likely than if the young person is forced to sit through general education classes with students who are on a completely different intellectual, and interest, plane than he is. Intellectual level, per se, does not contribute to poor social skills. Too much time with people who are nothing like us can warp how we solve the intricate problems of learning how to get along with others. For an overview, see EQ and the IQ Connection.

I am familiar with research by Camilla Benbow that illustrates, among other things, that people who are more gifted in the nonverbal/mathematical domain than in the verbal domain are the most likely to go into careers in hard maths and sciences than people who are either even in both or stronger in verbal. Although it may sound funny to suggest it, I’ve made the intuitive leap to the observation that a number of social groups that are set up by high IQ or commonly-viewed-as-nerdy interests tend to have a high percentage of the unevenly gifted who are stronger on the mathematical sides of their brains. Such individuals can be introverts or extroverts. They can also be talkative and not talkative, but the one thing they tend to have in common is a difficulty with the kind of social conversation that helps people to make new friends easily. Furthermore, an unevenness of intellectual gifts can lead to a youngster not being identified as gifted. As a result, the youngster may never be placed in appropriately challenging learning environments with similarly minded potential friends.

Talent differences can help or hinder a person’s connecting with friends and romantic partners, as well. My own research has shown me that people who are good at sports have an easier time fitting in. Adolescents who sing or act or who are good at art also draw positive attention to themselves, which can help them over some of the initially awkward social meetings. At the same time, too much attention or dependence on one’s talent can attract negative consequences from those who are jealous or resentful. Some inexperienced and poorly guided talented young people may develop attitudes and behaviors that undermine any social advantages their talents bring, too.

Finally, physical appearances make a big difference in what an adolescent’s social options are. The smallest boy in the class is almost always the target of ridicule and bullying; such treatment affects the developing self-concept. A beautiful girl has to learn social coping skills that are entirely different than her less attractive counterpart, too. While a beautiful girl has more chances to find a boyfriend, she may be overwhelmed by how to treat all her suitors kindly while trying to study and plan for her own intellectual future. The less attractive girl may have more time for study, but how do her parents give her hope that she, too, is attractive and will find love and acceptance? Blithe reassurances that ignore reality are not generally helpful. There are also extremely gifted adolescents who are odd-looking for one reason or another. Parents who deny this when encouraging their children may undermine their own credibility.

Premise Two: Specific Control Issues
Specific control issues contribute to adolescent depression, hostility, or rebellion among the exceptionally gifted. One, inappropriate school expectations during middle and high school, when such expectations are also accepted as necessary by the child’s parents, lead to depression or rebellion on the part of the child; and two, parents who wait too long to begin their child’s path toward independent decision-making and activity lead the emerging adolescent to interpret parental rules and safeguards as too restrictive and an indication that the parents do not trust the maturing individual.

Boys and girls tend to react differently to situations that may appear similar. Also, the child’s level of intelligence coupled with the appropriate or inappropriate environment determines when the problems begin for most youngsters. There are three main types of parenting that fall on a continuum. Either extreme is bad for growing children. Exceptionally and profoundly gifted children are no exception to the general requirements of good parenting except that they need a more cognitive approach with more talking and more collaboration. Extremely gifted children need to be able to trust and respect those who are in charge of them. This does not mean that they will blindly comply or obey. A thumbnail definition of depression that I like to use is this: depression is obligation without power. Depression comes from our anger at those who can control us even though they are fools or have fools’ expectations. Some adolescents act out their anger externally while others act it out internally via depression or other self-harming activities.

The three main types of parenting are permissive, authoritative, and authoritarian. Briefly, permissive is not enough structure or guidance and it often leaves the child feeling abandoned and angry; authoritarian is too strict and too rule-oriented and can make the child angry, hostile, and over-bearing as an adult (the effect differs between boys and girls); and authoritative is the best for both boys and girls throughout childhood. The middle approach takes the time to explain, to listen, and to get the child to understand the ‘why’ of any rules and requirements.

I tell parents to think about any expectation they have for their child and ask themselves why they believe it is important. If they cannot think of a good reason, or if the reason includes “That’s what people are supposed to do” or “I’m afraid people will think I’m not a good parent if you don’t do this,” then perhaps it is time to rethink the expectation. Parents have to recognize that they are still in the process of growing and maturing themselves. As the children become adolescents, the parents are reaching their own new developmental stages of life. Parents need to admit that they are not perfect and are still learning and figuring things out themselves. They also need to have the confidence that their experience and hindsight is valuable and can be useful to their children. No matter how brilliant, an adolescent does not have adult perspective or wisdom.

So, what are some of these inappropriate school and home expectations? I’ll name just a few to get readers started: bedtime, homework, and curfews. As children reach their teens, they can understand the medical research on sleep. Adolescents need more sleep than children. People have different biological clocks. Discuss these facts, and then let your children experiment with how to set up their own schedules. I tell teenagers that if they find themselves having difficulty getting up in the morning, are cranky with people around them, or get too many colds, then they need to adjust their bedtime to ensure they are getting enough sleep. Set rules for your own comfort: no noise or phone calls after 9:00 p.m., for example. Also, it is not the parents’ responsibility to wake the teenager up in the morning or drive her to school if she misses the bus. It should be fairly obvious that a parent needs an extensive bag of tricks and motivators to ensure that the child still goes to school under these circumstances, but this all fits into a number of other issues, as you will see.

If the adolescent is not finishing homework or is trying to skip classes, why might that be? If the adolescent is exceptionally or profoundly gifted, what kinds of classes and assignments is the youth expected to do? If they are general education classes that have other students and assignments far below the child’s own ability or achievement level, then the first very important change to make is to remove the youngster from the inappropriate environment. When we try to force an extremely gifted young person to comply with rules and expectations that she has correctly perceived are completely wrong for her, can we be surprised when she expresses her power in the only ways remaining to her? Parents often ask me how to motivate their children. Children are naturally motivated. The better question is: How do I motivate my child to do what I want even though it is totally wrong for him? I encourage them to consider that motivation follows when the youngster is allowed, freed up, to do what is interesting. Obviously some school subjects are not inherently interesting to everyone, but if the content and pace are appropriate, and the others in the class are capable of keeping up and discussing it at a similar level, it can become more palatable. Also, teenagers respond very well to discussions about “not burning your bridges’ and keeping options open for the future by what we study today.

I heard a talk at my children’s school when they were still pre-adolescent where the speaker suggested that parents should loosen up the curfew until it was totally up to the young person by senior year in high school. She was not invited back to the school, but I took what she suggested and expanded upon it for my own children. When giving the maturing adolescent more freedom and more decision-making power, the parent must clearly inform the youth about dangers, risks, reputations, time management, responsibilities, and any fears the parent might have. Realistically, it makes no sense to expect the youth to go from total parental control to total freedom as a college freshman. It is better to ease them into personal responsibility while you are still there to counsel and guide them.

Premise Three: Extremely Gifted Teenagers Often Need Help Making Friendship and Romantic Connections
Many exceptionally and profoundly gifted adolescents and young adults need considerable help and support in finding and maintaining friendship and romantic connections. Many highly intelligent adolescents, while craving friendships, often resist activities and opportunities that would increase their chances of finding true friends and soul mates. Evidence also exists that adults may attribute more maturity, wisdom, and even practicality on the part of the highly intelligent adolescent concerning dating and romance issues than is the case, thereby leaving the exceptionally gifted teenager emotionally and logistically unsupported by adult guidance.

It is on this final topic that all of the variables come into play. I highly recommend the Free Spirit Publishing website for help in many of these areas. It is important to realize that being unusually gifted does not alter the path to finding soul mates and lovers as much as one would think. Hormones and natural human tendencies affect exceptionally gifted people the same ways that they affect more typical people. We all want to be loved; we all want partners and friends to turn to when we are stressed, hurt, lonely, confused, or excited. Becoming a parent is just as satisfying, maybe even more so, for many exceptionally gifted people. There is some qualitative research that supports the idea that the most successful geniuses have been people who found soul mates or who married their best friend. It is not embarrassing or unusual or a waste of intellectual gifts to be a boy-crazy teenager or an obsessive boy wondering if any girls like him.

First of all, if the exceptionally gifted young person is shy, introverted, very different in interests, looks, or abilities than most others the same age, it will help if the family can find a comfortable environment and allow the child to stay there for many years. Frequent changes, unless part of an attempt to find a suitable environment for learning and friendship formation, can leave the exceptionally gifted child or adolescent very lonely. An extreme but effective example is of a young man who was born with facial deformities. He was exceptionally gifted, came from very attractive parents and great wealth, and was and continued to be the shortest boy in his class. The youngster made a number of very good male friends over the years, and his parents made the wise decision not to move him to another state when the father got a promotion. In fact, they made arrangements for the parents and children to do a fair amount of commuting for several years just so their son could maintain the connections that worked for him.

Most elementary school classes are set up with a heterogeneous bell curve configuration, so that exceptionally gifted children are almost always left as the only one like them in their class each year. If the parents have removed the exceptionally or profoundly gifted child from school for academic or social/emotional reasons (as in to home school full time), their child also experiences a degree of social isolation. What can be done? First, keep in mind that not all activities that are appropriate for gifted children are labeled “gifted.” There are many opportunities in most communities that families can tap into in order to “force” social interaction for their children. In schools, it is truly necessary for a part of each day, at least, to involve either an adult or other highly gifted individuals from a variety of ages for the exceptionally and profoundly gifted children to interact and perhaps become friends with. Music, acting, coordinating complex projects, sports; any of these things can provide social opportunities that increase the chances the child will connect emotionally with someone. My own children became involved in making radio and television commercials; and we found that the adults appreciated their talent and behavior enough to treat them as wonderful individuals rather than odd children.

Romance? Take them seriously when they want to talk to you about who they like and who likes them. Talks about sex, sexual behaviors and drives, male and female differences, birth control, marriage, safety issues, emotions … all should begin way before adolescence. Some adults are wonderfully comfortable with these topics while others are not. I recommend finding a friend or relative who is comfortable and who will mentor or guide your young person on these subjects if you can’t do it. Good books are available on most of these subjects and can be the impetus for parent-child discussion, too. Adults need to tap into their own experiences in order to help their exceptionally gifted children cope with the fears, anxieties, joys, and disappoints of personal relationships.

How do you get your adolescent to talk to you? Start in the early years and continue throughout their lives. Bedtime is when most children open up and want to talk. Although it may appear to be a stalling technique, it really isn’t. Move the bedtime a bit earlier to allow for that talking and sharing time. No subject of discussion should be taboo between you so long as you observe safe parent-child boundaries. A licensed counselor may be able to help with this. You can stick to the facts about biology and human emotions without going into detail about your own past, for example. Another good talking time is in the car. Turn off the radio for short errand trips so that conversation can flow. Arrange for errands that give each parent one-on-one time with each child. Invite questions often.

School counselors and teachers need to accept the fact that their exceptionally gifted students may benefit more from school day opportunities to mingle and work on fun projects and goals together than on getting their assignments done. A sensitive adult should observe the interactions and allow for private opportunities for the young people to talk to a caring adult about how to act, how to interpret others’ behaviors, and how not to feel that this awkwardness is unusual or bad. Extremely gifted youngsters are not used to or comfortable with being inept, after all, and need a great deal of support and reassurance that their learning curve on relationships is right on track.

Parents who start the sex and relationship talks before adolescence will have an easier time than parents who wait until the teens, but that doesn’t mean it is too late. Have confidence that there is no one who can have a more meaningful conversation with your child than you can. You might start by saying, “I’m no expert on women, but I have figured out a few things along the way. Did you know that for most smart girls, a guy’s sense of humor and intelligence are more important to her than his looks?” Young men want to know what women want and what they are like and what the different things they say or do really mean. They need to know that women doubt themselves, too, and that all of us grow and change and make mistakes along the way. Young women need to know that young men are wired differently than they are and may be more easily sexually aroused than the average young woman. Any and all of these topics should be discussed positively, making it clear that although males and females have differences, they are all good people who are looking for acceptance, love, security, and fulfillment and purpose in their lives.

Finally, never assume that the exceptionally gifted high school or college student has all the answers or knows how to behave at a party or on a date just because they understand quantum theory or write incredibly sophisticated poetry. Bring up the issues of respect, safety, abstinence, birth control, substance abuse, and anything else that you may be secretly hoping they will or will not do. If you are not the parent but a professional who works with the adolescent in question, you may ask the parent if you have permission to discuss some of the more intimate topics with their child. Many parents will gladly accept your offer.

Being exceptionally or profoundly gifted makes finding friends, soul mates and lovers somewhat more difficult simply because there are not as many compatible people from which to choose. But, the problem is even more difficult if the adults in the adolescent’s life trivialize the importance of such connections to the brilliant young person. Just as other sensitivities increase with intellectual level, perhaps sensitivity to heartache and loneliness are more profound as well. Allowing the adolescent to find his or her own path, develop a sense of personal power, and establish meaningful and rewarding relationships is something that parents and teachers must support and guide.

Copyright © Deborah Ruf, 2003. All rights reserved.