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Helping Adolescents Adjust to Giftedness
ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
ERIC EC Digest #E489
Authors: Thomas M. Buescher and Sharon Higham
Young gifted people between the ages of 11 and 15 frequently report a range of problems as a
result of their abundant gifts: perfectionism, competitiveness, unrealistic appraisal of their gifts,
rejection from peers, confusion due to mixed messages about their talents, and parental and
social pressures to achieve, as well as problems with unchallenging school programs or increased
expectations. Some encounter difficulties in finding and choosing friends, a course of study, and,
eventually, a career. The developmental issues that all adolescents encounter exist also for gifted
students, yet they are further complicated by the special needs and characteristics of being gifted.
Once counselors and parents are aware of these obstacles, they seem better able to understand
and support gifted adolescents. Caring adults can assist these young people to "own" and develop
their talents by understanding and responding to adjustment challenges and coping strategies.
Challenges to Adjustment
Several dynamics of giftedness continually interfere with adjustment gains during adolescence.
Buescher (1986) has found that, during the early years of adolescence, gifted young people
encounter several potent obstacles, singly or in combination.
- Ownership: Talented adolescents simultaneously "own" and yet
question the validity and reality of the abilities they possess. Some researchers (Olszewski,
Kulieke, & Willis, 1987) have identified patterns of disbelief, doubt, and lack of self-esteem
among older students and adults: the so-called "impostor syndrome" described by many talented
individuals. While talents have been recognized in many cases at an early age, doubts about the
accuracy of identification and the objectivity of parents or favorite teachers linger (Delisle &
Galbraith, 1987; Galbraith, 1983). The power of peer pressure toward conformity, coupled with
any adolescent's wavering sense of being predictable or intact, can lead to the denial of even the
most outstanding ability. The conflict that ensues, whether mild or acute, needs to be resolved by
gaining a more mature "ownership" and responsibility for the identified talent.
- A second basic pressure often experienced by gifted students is that, since they have been
given gifts in abundance, they feel they must give of themselves in abundance.
Often it is subtly implied that their abilities belong to parents, teachers, and society.
- Dissonance: By their own admission, talented adolescents often feel like
perfectionists. They have learned to set their standards high, to expect to do more and be more
than their abilities might allow. Childhood desires to do demanding tasks
perfectly become compounded
during adolescence. It is not uncommon for talented adolescents to experience real dissonance
between what is actually done and how well they expected it to be accomplished. Often the
dissonance perceived by young people is far greater than most parents or teachers realize.
- Taking Risks: While risk taking has been used to characterize younger
gifted and talented children, it ironically decreases with age, so that the bright adolescent is much
less likely to take chances than others. Why the shift in risk-taking behaviors? Gifted
adolescents appear to be more aware of the repercussions of certain activities, whether these are
positive or negative. They have learned to measure the decided advantages and disadvantages of
numerous opportunities and to weigh alternatives. Yet their feigned agility at this too often leads
them to reject even those acceptable activities that carry some risk (e.g., advanced placement
courses, stiff competitions, public presentations), for which high success is less predictable and
lower standards of performance less acceptable in their eyes. One other possible cause for less
risk taking could be the need to maintain control--to remain in spheres of influence where
challenging relationships, demanding coursework and teachers, or intense competition cannot
enter without absolute personal control.
- Competing Expectations: Adolescents are vulnerable to criticism,
suggestions, and emotional appeals from others. Parents, friends, siblings, and teachers are all
eager to add their own expectations and observations to even the brightest students' intentions
and goals. Often, others' expectations for talented young people compete with their own dreams
and plans. Delisle (1985), in particular, has pointed out that the "pull" of an adolescent's own
expectations must swim against the strong current posed by the "push" of others' desires and
demands. The dilemma is complicated by the numerous options within the reach of a highly
talented student: The greater the talent, the greater the expectations and outside interference.
Gifted adolescents consistently report dramatic episodes of being pushed to the point of
doubt and despair by insensitive teachers, peers, and even parents. Teachers in secondary
schools, in particular, have tried to disprove the talents of individual students, saying, in effect,
"Prove to me you are as gifted as you think you are." Coping with the vagaries of adolescence
while also proving oneself again and again in the classroom or peer group significantly drains
energy allocated for the normal tasks of adjustment and leads to frequent frustration and
- Impatience: Like most other adolescents, gifted students can be impatient
in many ways: eager to find solutions for difficult questions, anxious to develop satisfying
friendships, and prone to selecting difficult but immediate alternatives for complex decisions.
The predisposition for impulsive decision making, coupled with exceptional talent, can make
young adolescents particularly intolerant of ambiguous, unresolved situations. Their impatience
with a lack of clear-cut answers, options, or decisions drives them to seek answers where none
readily exist, relying on an informing, though immature, sense of wisdom. The anger and
disappointment when hasty resolutions fail can be difficult to surmount, particularly when less
capable peers gloat about these failures.
- Premature Identity: It appears that the weight of competing expectations,
low tolerance for ambiguity, and the pressure of multiple potentials each feed very early attempts
to achieve an adultlike identity, a stage normally achieved after the age of 21. This can create a
serious problem for talented adolescents. They seem to reach out prematurely for career choices
that will short-cut the normal process of identity crisis and resolution.
How can talented adolescents cope with the myriad obstacles to developing their talents? A study
of young adolescents who participated in a talent search program Buescher & Higham (1985)
suggested various strategies. Table 1 depicts the strategies suggested by the adolescents, arranged
according to their assessment of acceptablity for use.
Table 1. Coping Strategies Suggested by Adolescents
(In Order by Weighted Ranking; 0 = Least
Acceptable to Students; 10 = Most Acceptable):
(0) Pretend not to know as much as you do.
(1) Act like a "brain" so peers leave you alone.
(2) Adjust language and behavior to disguise true abilities from your peers.
(3) Avoid programs designed for gifted/talented students.
(4) Be more active in
community groups where age is no object.
(5) Develop/excel in talent areas outside school
(6) Achieve in areas at school outside academics.
(7) Build more relationships with adults.
(8) Select programs and classes designed for gifted/talented students.
(9) Make friends
with other students with exceptional talents.
(10) Accept and use abilities to help peers do
better in classes.
The strategies were influenced by such factors as age, sex, and participation in programs for
gifted students. For example, over the course of 4 years (ages 11 to 15), "using one's talent to
help others" moved from second place to first, by way of third. "Achieving in school in areas
outside academics" appeared to rise in popularity until the age of 14 but then dropped to third
place. Students participating in special programs for the gifted were less likely, as they grew
older, to mask their true abilities. Other studies have indicated that gifted females appear to be
somewhat vulnerable to the pull of cultural expectations that drive them toward seeking peer
acceptance rather than leadership and the full development of their abilities (Olszewski-Kubilius
& Kulieke, 1989).
Buescher, T. M. (1985). A framework for understanding the social and emotional development
of gifted and talented adolescents. ROEPER REVIEW, 8(1), 10-15.
Buescher, T. M. (1986,
March). Adolescents' Responses to Their Own Recognized Talent: Issues Affecting Counseling
and Adjustment. Paper presented at the 63rd annual meeting of the American Orthopsychiatric
Buescher, T., & Higham, S. (1985). Young Adolescent Survey: Coping Skills among the
Gifted/Talented. Unpublished instrument. Evanston, IL: Center for Talent Development,
Delisle, J. (1985). Counseling gifted persons: A lifelong concern. ROEPER REVIEW, 8 (1),
Delisle, J., & Galbraith, J. (1987). THE GIFTED KIDS SURVIVAL GUIDE, II. Minneapolis:
Galbraith, J. (1983). The Gifted Kids Survival Guide, Ages 11-18. Minneapolis: Free Spirit.
Olszewski, P., Kulieke, M., & Willis, G. (1987). Changes in the self-concept of gifted students
who participate in rigorous academic programs. JOURNAL FOR THE EDUCATION OF THE
GIFTED, 10(4), 287-304.
Olszewski-Kubilius, P., & Kulieke, M. (1989). Personality dimensions of gifted adolescents. In
J. VanTassel-Baska & P. Olszewski-Kubilius (Eds.), Patterns of Influence on Gifted Learners:
the Home, the Self, and the School (pp. 125-145). New York: Teachers College Press.
Buescher, T., Olszewski, P., & Higham, S. (1987, April). Influences on Strategies Gifted
Adolescents Use To Cope with Their Own Recognized Talent. Paper presented at the 1987
biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Baltimore.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Larson, R. (1984). Being Adolescent: Conflict and Growth in the
Teenage Years. New York: Basic Books.
Erikson, E. (1968). Identity, Youth, and Crisis. New York: Norton.
Higham, S., &
Buescher, T. (1987). What young gifted adolescents understand about feeling different. In T.
Understanding Gifted and Talented Adolescents (pp. 26-30). Evanston, IL: Center for Talent
Development, Northwestern University.
Thomas M. Buescher, child and adolescent therapist in Camden, ME, is editor of
Understanding Gifted and Talented Adolescents, and Research Scholar,
Center for Talent Development, Northwestern University; Sharon Higham, formerly Associate
Director of Programs, Center for Talented Youth (CTY), Johns Hopkins University, is currently
a Fulbright Scholar researching programs for gifted students in Poland.
The material in this
digest was adapted by permission of the publisher from Buescher, T. (1989). A developmental
study of adjustment among gifted adolescents. In J. VanTassel-Baska & P. Olszewski-Kubilius
(Eds.), Patterns of Influence on Gifted Learners: the Home, the Self, and the School
(pp. 102-124). New York: Teachers College Press. c1989 by Teachers College, Columbia
University. All rights reserved.
ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated,
but please acknowledge your source. This publication was prepared with funding from
the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education,
under Contract No. RI88062007. The opinions expressed in this report do not
necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the Department of Education.
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