From the Archive

This article originally appeared in the April 2007 print edition of NAGC Newsletter. Resources have been updated in 2018.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.’   Nelson Mandela Inaugural Speech 1994

Teenagers can be challenging at the best of times but a gifted one often tests parents and carers beyond the realms of reality. Puberty and adolescence are difficult times for teenagers and families under normal circumstances (whatever normal is??) but gifted or high ability adolescents and their families often find this time frustrating and difficult. What with hormones flying, gifted behaviours and characteristics, sometimes a single or multiple special educational needs or learning difficulties add to this settling into secondary school and striving to be an adult its not surprising that this is one of the most testing times for all concerned.

Gifted children portray characteristics and behaviours of children much older than their chronological age and this can be extremely confusing and have huge social and emotional implications. Imagine a 11 year old, who 50% of the time (or more) behaves, communicates, debates and genuinely believes that they are, and can act like, an 18 year old and cannot understand why you as a parent/carer will not let them do the things, or go somewhere, an 18 year old can.

They will argue logically and endlessly and no matter how much evidence, rational, logic or reasoning you apply to a topic of conversation your 11 year old has a reasonable rational logical answer as to why he or she should be allowed to do whatever it is you feel they should NOT be doing; does this make sense and are you recognising some of this.

The 11 year old may also behave illogically at times – out of sync or asynchronously – and when he or she cannot have or do whatever it is he or she feels they should be allowed to do they may have a tantrum, shout and scream, behave totally irrationally, be rude, disrespectful and arrogant, slam doors and argue the point for what seems like forever. They may even find a way to do the ‘something’ you say they are not to do behind your back and (they hope) without you knowing because in their mind you as the parent are totally unreasonable and of course you don’t trust them! You may say “well this sounds just like many teenagers” but it is worse with high ability children or teenagers and those of you that have them will know in many cases I am not exaggerating?

Many children of high ability have asynchronous development where the brain matures at different rates. The social and emotional brain often matures at their chronological age but the cognitive brain often matures much more quickly and races ahead thus they can be very mature in certain areas but very immature in other areas. This is why we see tantrums and irrational behaviour sometimes but very adult language and conversations at other times. Asynchronous development brings with is many frustrations and difficulties and in some cases processing, organisational and handwriting difficulties. Many of the traits, characteristics and difficulties that come with asynchronous development mimic and overlap with other disorders and consequently we must be aware of misdiagnosis. See Factsheet PA514 Asynchronous Development and the book Misdiagnosis by James T Webb listed below.

My 17 year old daughter (diagnosed as high ability aged 6 years) behaves ninety five percent of the time as a beautiful mature well mannered and well behaved intelligent reasonable logical rationale young woman BUT there is that horrible stressful illogical irrational and irritating five percent when no matter how I try I cannot make her understand that she is being unreasonable. She can argue and argue (she would call it discuss and discuss) her point until I am totally worn down, blue in the face, have completely lost the plot and actually don’t feel sane anymore. Her passion and energy for putting over her point of view is phenomenal and she has far more application and energy than I have in this area. She will keep on and on hoping that she will wear me down (and quite often she does) to the point where I give in and she gets what she is striving so hard to achieve. The irritating part of all this is that often her arguments are perfectly logical and reasonable and I have a hard time convincing her that actually she is “just not old enough” or “it is just not acceptable” to do whatever it is we are discussing.

I have had to use health and safety, the law, child protection, discrimination, data protection, equal opportunities and any other Act, Bill or Law to help me out and sometimes still she will dispute my argument or judgement and even that of the Act or Bill!! Discipline and behaviour management have always been difficult in our home because she has always been able to get her head around rules and discipline strategies. As a teenager this became more and more difficult and impossible to find something that ‘made a difference’ to her enough to teach her rules and respect because in her mind she felt mature enough to do certain things then obviously (in her mind) it was ok and acceptable to do them. I always had to be ten steps ahead of the game and have firm boundaries; we had to have house rules written down on a white board and behaviour management strategies had to change frequently.

It was not about right and wrong; she has always known what is right and what is wrong if fact she has strong views on right and wrong and dislikes unfairness and injustice but she has strong ideas and opinions, strong values, morals and ethics and is never afraid to questions adults beliefs systems and give her own opinions. If she believes is something often we can never make her change her mind without her finding out for herself.

I am sure many of you reading this can empathise with me, are nodding knowingly and I could be talking about many of your own high ability children. Its not that they are naughty or badly behaved it’s about the fact that they view the world very differently to the average child. They are able to think and understand on a different level; often on a different level to their parents/carers and teachers. They often really do have deeper knowledge and understanding than we give them credit for on subjects like death, poverty, racism, religion and war and some even have a morbid fascination for with some of these subjects, asking question after question and researching on the Internet. Some would say they are even obsessed with certain subjects, games or toys. Many become bored in school, daydream, coast, switch off and underachieve if they are not interested, find the work too easy or it doesn’t relate to real situations. Find a list of house rules that you can live with and agree them together; everyone must live by them so be careful – do not agree to something you cannot carry through yourself.

  1. firm boundaries
  2. strong moral and values
  3. language boundaries
  4. compromise
  5. pick your battles
  6. flexible
  7. trust
  8. respect
  9. listen to each other
  10. love

Gifted and talented children can generally be very misunderstood. Schools can find them challenging, a nuisance, disruptive or badly behaved; they can very quickly be labelled with their gifts and talents being overlooked or not even seen. Detentions and exclusions from school are not positive forms of discipline for any teenager but they are particularly negative for high ability students as this form of punishment has little or no effect on them as they are happy to go home or attend the detention. They are often not embarrassed by it and due to playground difficulties they often prefer to stay in. they know the punishment is only for an hour or so (or a day or so in an exclusion case) and then all will be back to normal – its no punishment.

They often struggle with friendships mainly within their peer group often preferring to mix with people much older than themselves even feeling more comfortable with adults as they have far more in common. Try not to worry about this; it is very normal with gifted and talented. Some gifted children will isolate themselves deliberately because this is easier than trying to constantly fit into the group and having to pretend to be someone they are not; many are very comfortable with this. My daughter once said to me “why do you try to make me be friends with people who I have nothing in common with and who don’t understand me?” Try to remember for the gifted child one good friend is better than none. Together work at friendships and remember good friendships can be people out of school or family, we can get by with acquaintances in school or lots of friends; its ok not to always have one “best” friend.

‘Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Others stay a while. Some move our souls to dance, leave footprints in our hearts and we are never the same again’

In other words we have all types of friendships for all sorts of reasons and all are healthy and acceptable for our learning and growth as human beings.

Many will be socially and emotionally immature but cognitively be way ahead. Some teenagers operate as a twenty year old cognitively but only as a 14 to 15 year old socially and emotionally. This can cause huge discrepancies in their logic and rationale and lead to frustrations and negative behaviours, they can become very unhappy, feel very misunderstood which can lead to low self esteem, confidence and underachievement some even become the “class clown” as that helps them to fit in, have friends and be liked albeit in a negative fashion. The playground can be particularly distressing and lonely for gifted teenagers as can friends out of school due to the fact that many gifted teenagers do not enjoy the same games or subject areas as their peers and thus stand out as different and in some cases are thought of as “odd.” A mentor, buddy or safe adult can be a good in this instance.

Some high ability students do not enjoy sport and therefore joining in with their peers in a local football or rugby team is not an option for them. Many prefer more studious subjects such as reading, IT, chess, writing, maths, science, medicine and archaeology which can lead to isolation and them being labelled a boff, geek or nerd which in turn, in severe cases, can lead to bullying. From early on try to assist you child with their social skills as much, if not more so, than their academic skills.

My daughter has become more content since she has been an adult. She no longer has to listen to adults she can make her own choices and learn by her own mistakes. I have always tried to teach her to take responsibility for her actions in order that I don’t have to keep helping to pick up the pieces!! She is now more independent and some of the things she has always strived to do finally she can do and I have to support her and guide her but leave her now to grow and fly as an adult.

‘We ask ourselves who am I to be brilliant gorgeous talented and fabulous? Actually who are you not to be? Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.’ Nelson Mandela Inaugural Speech 1994



Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults by James T Webb et al

The Out of Sync Child by Carol Stock Kranowitz

The Survival Guide for Parents of Gifted Kids by Sally Yanhke Walker

Gifted Children by Kate Distin

Factsheets – available to download free to members and charged for non-members

PA307 Working in Positive Partnership with School 

PA315 Meeting with the School

PA310 The Low-Down on Enrichment

PA102 Characteristics of Children with High Learning Potential

PA603 Friendships and High Learning Potential Children

PA202 Educational Psychologists: Advice for Parents

Being Me – Isn’t it time someone heard your story? This pdf booklet about Bullying was produced in a joint enterprise with Kidscape in 2015.