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Deep Thinkers and Perfectionists: Getting to Know Your Gifted Teen

Published on: September 27, 2013

Gifted Teenager education resourcesWho are gifted teens?

If you think they are all popular, active, straight-A students with a one-way ticket to the Ivy League, keep reading. Gifted teens are also deep-thinking introverts who flourish with a sparser schedule, late-blooming artists who may struggle in school and not fully realize their talents until adulthood or beyond, and fun-loving social butterflies who excel at making connections, perhaps at the expense of a high grade point average.

We often recognize giftedness in terms of milestones, such as learning to read early, but being gifted is as much about intensity of inner experience as it is precociousness — intense emotions, intense curiosity and need to learn (but not necessarily school subjects), intense imagination, intense reactions to change. Parents can ask themselves to what extent they also have this intensity, as a way to connect with and better understand their adolescents.

Parents can also know that not all gifted teens continue to do everything earlier and faster than their peers. In fact, a longitudinal study of child brain development published in 2006 in Nature found that the cortical pruning necessary for executive function skills, such as long-term planning and prioritizing, actually began later rather than earlier for more highly intelligent tweens and teens, up to four years later. The study’s authors suggest that the delay may allow for greater development of “high-level cognitive” connections, or critical and creative thinking skills.

What does this mean for parents and teachers of bright teenagers? One-size-fits-all or unrealistic expectations can often get in the way of seeing who gifted adolescents truly are and what they need. In our world of high-stakes university admissions, when even middle school students feel pressure to begin thinking about what will look good on their college applications, parents can remind themselves that academic development is only one part of who their child is. The social and emotional development of gifted teens has a far greater impact on the rest of their lives than whether they get an “A” in any given class.

Jane Hesslein, a Seattle Country Day School educator with more than 30 years of teaching experience, offers the following suggestions for dealing with three issues that parents of gifted teens often worry about: perfectionism, anxiety and social life.

Perfectionism: “Focus on the difference between perfection and excellence. Figure out where the pressure is coming from — fear of failure in an area of strength? Fear of a new subject? Fear of social ridicule? Is the pressure from within, or is it some outside pressure?” Creative excellence often requires some missteps along the way. Sometimes doing one’s best is not the same as being perfect, and it’s also OK not to do one’s best all the time.

Anxiety: For anxiety that stems from being overwhelmed, Hesslein suggests helping teens to create a schedule by “working backward” so that they have a realistic sense of how much time is needed. “This strategy has the added bonus of listing just what those steps are,” Hesslein says. “Sometimes just doing that lightens the dread.” Humor — honest rather than sarcastic humor — can also ease tension and promote insight. However, she cautions, “If anxiety is handicapping, it’s time to seek help.”

Social life: Hesslein urges parents to help their teens find others who share their interests, regardless of age. Mentors, whether through a formal mentor program or on an informal basis, can also play an important role in adolescents’ social life, especially since gifted teens can often converse quite well with adults and enjoy doing so. To find mentors, think of friends, colleagues and extended family members who share your teen’s intensity in specific areas.

Be flexible

As is often the case with good parenting, being flexible and willing to change course when necessary go a long way toward meeting your children’s needs, as David Berg, a Puyallup resident and father of three, has found.

“I have one teenage son, one who calls himself ‘eleven-teen’ and one who is 7. I know already that what works for one son may not work the same way for his brothers,” he says. “Remembering that I need to let my teen take chances and make himself vulnerable is important. When he was younger, he needed someone to be his advocate. Now, I need to make sure he knows how to advocate for himself.”

Hesslein agrees that parental growth and development is important during the teen years, especially when it comes to granting teens more independence — not only at home, but also in their education. This sometimes means letting bright teens make and own their mistakes, rather than parents doing everything possible to prevent those mistakes from ever occurring.

“One of the most difficult conflicts of adolescence is the tug-of-war between a parent’s need to be needed (they’re not ready for this job to end!) just when their teen feels ready for independence,” says Hesslein. “I talk to both students and parents about this, which is why one of my students called me a double agent. It is helpful for teens to understand their parents’ dilemma and allow them some slack, too, as everyone wriggles their way to the next challenge of parenthood —parenting adult children!”

Lisa Rivero is the author of several books, including Smart Teens’ Guide to Living with Intensity and A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Teens.


David Berg, an active advocate for gifted students, serves on the board of the Northwest Gifted Child Association, works on the Washington Coalition for Gifted Education and received the 2011 Leadership Award from the Washington Association of Educators. He suggests these ways for parents to help improve educational opportunities for gifted teens:

Know your state. Washington state “is in a time of transition for gifted education,” says Berg. “Highly capable programming is now part of our state’s definition of basic education, and all districts will be required to offer services for students from K to 12.”

Parent knowledge and input are crucial. Berg says parents should watch their districts for opportunities to be involved in developing a gifted education program — and be advocates for their kids. “Few educators have had formal training in meeting the needs of the gifted; professional development is a part of the transition plan for most districts, but the need for parent involvement and advocacy isn’t going to go away.”

Set an example for your teen and join up. Parents can look for local, statewide and national organizations through which they can not only make a difference, but also connect with other parents facing similar issues and challenges. “There are other parents and children out there going through the same issues,” Berg says. “No parent or child should have to go it alone.”

He recommends the following organizations:
Northwest Gifted Child Association
Washington Coalition for Gifted Education
Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted

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