In 15 years of treating gifted children (also known as children with high learning potential / high ability / more able), I have seen the unique challenges and difficulties they face, which can be isolating, frustrating and depressing. Difficulties may manifest in anxiety symptoms resistant to normal counselling, while the cause, giftedness, often goes unidentified. However, once recognised, exposed and challenged, the child with high learning potential’s difficulties can be quickly managed.

I have noticed that gifted young people often talk of difficulties in education and socialising. Making friends can be challenging and they may find children their own age uninteresting or immature. Intellectually unchallenged in class, many become bored and frustrated, leading to misbehaviour or conflict with authority.

Some fail in education, while others pass exams easily, studying the night before while fellow students must revise for months. University is often more enjoyable, providing greater challenging and students of similar intellect; however, difficulties socialising or perfectionism with procrastination are often an issue.

I was surprised to find one childhood issue present in many gifted clients, an experience so distressing and hurtful, that it changed them and coloured much of their future life – bullying.

It seems that children with high learning potential are bullied more than others; perhaps their awkwardness, difficulty fitting in, intelligence or isolation attracts this. It seems that they are less able to cope. Highly analytical minds, prone to logic and problem solving, draw them into obsessive and unhealthy self-criticism and attempts to use reasoning and thinking to solve this problem, often make it worse.

Schools may be negligent in dealing with bullying. Despite the harm of bullying becoming more recognised in education, I have been surprised at the reluctance of some schools to take action. Many young people talk of years of abuse, or of having to move school.

Bullying can be sustained, brutal and so harmful that the damage continues for a lifetime. The effect is not only in being a victim, but the creation of a negative and defeatist self-image. The victim often internalises bullying, the harm continuing long after the bully has gone.

Rarely physical, the bullying usually takes the form of psychological attempts to destroy the victim’s self-worth, creating the belief that they are inferior and deserving of abuse. Prolonged insults, isolation, group attacks and humiliation at an early age persuade the victim that they are faulty, weird or unlikeable. This distorted self-image follows them through life, and is not challenged but confirmed; their already existing social awkwardness reinforces core beliefs (how we see ourselves, others and the world), that label them as strange and deserving of rejection.

Surprisingly, few clients with high learning potential realise that they were bullied, regarding this as inevitable, normal or, due to low self-esteem, justified. It can be a revelation that many later-life problems result from this, or that they are a normal and healthy response to bullying. Many are unaware of their giftedness, or how it explains many of their challenges. I encourage clients to read about these two subjects. This information is often absorbed quickly, bringing great relief.

 I have found higher levels of anxiety disorders in clients with high learning potential. Their higher intellectual ability can exaggerate ordinary problems by creating recurring worst case scenarios, over-analysis or undertaking a fruitless search for logical answers. It is this need for order and explanation that often causes harm, as bullying is often random, illogical and unfair.

Common anxiety disorders include OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), GAD (General Anxiety Disorder), depression, perfectionism, procrastination, and social anxiety, often leading to withdrawal and isolation.

Therapy can be helpful, or harmful. Many children with high learning potential become frustrated and hopeless when asked to share their feelings, preferring practical solutions. They require a different approach.

Perhaps the greatest therapeutic benefit comes from correct labelling. The very realisation in a child of their giftedness creates great relief as they understand that they are not weird, cursed or inferior, and that their difficulties are normal – for  people with high learning potential. Unfortunately, few therapists identify or understand giftedness, leading to misdiagnosis and ineffective or damaging treatment.

High learning potential is a blessing and a curse, bringing insight and clarity unavailable to others, while also making life difficult. Helping young people to understand this, providing information about giftedness and its pros and cons, is vital in helping them to learn to manage it.

When seeking therapy, CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is suitable for children with high learning potential, offering simple, practical and direct solutions. A clear diagnosis, correct labelling, achievable goals and practical tools bring swift results. Once giftedness and bullying are identified and rationalised, clients quickly create a healthy concept of their past and themselves, from which difficulties are understood and changes made.

Children with high learning potential very quickly grasp concepts and may apply CBT techniques swiftly and effectively. Once bullying and its relationship to their past problems and present self-regard is understood, a healthier self-image is constructed. As confidence increases and anxiety reduces, unhealthy self-criticism decreases.

Young people with high learning potential have the capacity for rapid and permanent change, once correctly identified and given simple, practical instruction.

I recommend to parents that they:

  1. Help their children to understand their high learning potential, its unique benefits and difficulties
  2. Frame their problems as normal and healthy, for children with high learning potential
  3. Provide information about high learning potential, such as books, articles or videos
  4. View anxiety disorders as a common issue for young people with high learning potential
  5. Choose a therapist with knowledge of this field
  6. Provide intellectual and experiential challenges to satisfy inquisitive and easily bored minds
  7. Help your child to accept their high learning potential, thus enabling them to take advantage of the unique opportunities it creates.


About the author: Tony Freeman has 15 years experience as a CBT therapist and hypnotherapist. He specialises in the treatment of gifted adults and young people.