The Problem With the 'Gifted' Child Diagnosis

I don’t know when my teachers and parents first suspected I might be "gifted." I mean, I was reading young and writing young — well before I entered school — but which behaviors piqued their interests are unclear. What I do know is, when I started second grade, they tested my IQ.

I sat in a room with a woman who asked me questions about words, history, science and math.

I guess I did well, because they informed my mother and father that I was "special." I was "gifted," at least as that was defined by the state of Florida — and by my elementary school. And as such, I was to be placed in accelerated classes.

Of course, gifted programs vary from school to school and state to state; even my particular program changed a great deal over the years. In the late ’80s, the curriculum was simple. As a second-grader, I was placed in third-grade reading and math. Academically, I was a year ahead of my age group peers.

I know that may not sound like much — a second-grader reading, writing and problem-solving at a third-grade level — and truth be told, it wasn’t. I picked the new information up quickly. I fell in step with the coursework, and before long, the transition seemed natural. I was holding my own.

More: What You Need to Know if Your Child Is Gifted & Talented

But the difference wasn’t just in the work. I was placed in a separate program with new and unfamiliar teachers. I was placed in a separate classroom with new and unfamiliar friends, and I spent most of my day there, learning in a trailer set up in our school’s courtyard.

And that part caught up with me.

Within a year, there was a shift — in my learning ability as well as my personality. 

You see, the jump from second grade to third grade caused me to lose out on pivotal lessons, like how do decimals, fractions and write in cursive. I struggled socially, finding it difficult to interact with my older and more advanced peers. And these lapses — in my education and socialization — caused me great anxiety.

I went from being an extrovert to an introvert: a meek and nervous little girl.

I was also a perfectionist. To a fault. Failure upset me so much that I once cried for hours because I received a B. And while this didn’t seem abnormal, at least not at the time, hindsight is twenty-twenty. I see now how the emotional gap my "giftedness" caused continued to widen over the years until I was paralyzed by depression in my early teens — consumed by sadness, loneliness and fear.

It turns out these educational lapses are not uncommon. A 2009 study from Hungary’s Semmelweis University found "an association between high academic performance, creativity and the T/T genotype, a gene that’s been linked to an increased risk of psychosis — all of which may help to explain exactly why conventional wisdom tells us that gifted individuals tend to be more prone to anxiety and stress."

According to Dr. Linda E. Brody of Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, gifted children can struggle with low self-esteem, unhealthy levels of perfectionism, poor social skills and/or asynchronous development — which, according to the National Association for Gifted Children, is a "mismatch between cognitive, emotional, and physical development of gifted individuals."

All of which I have or have had.

Make no mistake: I am not blaming the school, my teachers or my parents for my mental health issues or my anxiety. It is simply part of who I am. It makes me me, and I believe I would struggle with said issues whether or not I had been placed in the gifted program. However, it is important to note that these issues are very real concerns for many gifted children.

It is also important to note that there is a difference between "gifted" students and high-achieving students, one which author Chris Cross explores in an essay entitled "The Truth About ‘Gifted’ Versus Achieving Students," published on Loudoun Now. According to Cross, "high achievers are students who perform at peak academic levels. They take the hardest classes and ace them all." However, gifted students often have a hard time. 

"Gifted students… may or may not earn high marks," Cross wrote. They "often frustrate teachers because they don’t quite live up to their potential, especially in classes that are too easy for them… [and] many gifted children have few friends because of their esoteric interests. Sometimes, these students feel so isolated that they become depressed… even suicidal," which is something I can relate to; I tried to take my life when I was 17.

So what is a parent to do? How can you help your gifted child? Well, you engage them, you support them, and you enrich them — not just academically but emotionally. You tend to all their needs.

Does this mean things will be easy? No, not necessarily. You and they  may still struggle. No matter how preventative you are, issues may still arise. But understanding and awareness are key, as "special" children often have special needs.  

As for me, today I am a "gifted" 34-year-old woman: a wife, a writer, a mental health advocate and a mom. And while I never identify with the G-word (if I’m being honest, it makes me uncomfortable), I am talking about it today to help others — because no child should grow up feeling lost, crazy or alone.

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