At first glance, gifted children would seem to be “immune” to issues of low self-esteem. After all, these children are generally thought of as successful high achievers. However, people who study and counsel gifted students say this is a potentially harmful misperception. These experts caution that while gifted children are not necessarily more at risk for low self-esteem than other children, their self-esteem issues are more likely to be overlooked.
Explains Michelle Muratori, a senior counselor and researcher at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, “Competence and achievement are generally thought to be vital elements of self-esteem and are intertwined with a child’s evaluation and awareness of his or her own worth, so people may mistakenly conclude that gifted children are exempt from low self-esteem because they appear to be very competent and high achieving.”
However, some challenges specific to gifted students can cause significant problems. For instance, when gifted students are not adequately challenged in school or don’t have access to intellectual peers, problems such as underachievement, boredom and unhealthy perfectionism can emerge. This is a particular problem in schools that don’t provide a supportive environment for academic achievement, asserts Muratori, who is also a member of the American Counseling Association.
“While some school cultures embrace athletic or artistic achievements, they fail to embrace intellectual curiosity [due to fear about elitism], which gives academically talented students the clear message that they need to hide their intellectual gifts so as to avoid negative reactions from other students, teachers and other school personnel,” she says.
“These students may unfortunately internalize the message that it is not OK for them to be who they truly are, which may damage their global self-esteem,” Muratori concludes.
In fact, according to a 2008 study in the Creativity and Research Journal, a significant number of gifted students — possibly close to half — are not achieving their full potential. In addition, as many as 25 to 30 percent of high school dropouts may be gifted individuals. The authors believe that creativity may be connected to this “underachievement.” They suggest that highly creative students have a hard time conforming to a more rigid traditional environment. The study also cites previous research indicating that teachers generally prefer conventional achievers and “teacher pleasers” to more unconventional students.
Other factors may also contribute to a gifted child’s low self-esteem. Gifted children have varied personalities, of course, but certain characteristics are often associated with giftedness, Muratori explains. Many experience the world with great intensity, which can be overwhelming both to them and the people in their lives. As peer acceptance becomes more important, being acutely aware of being “different” may magnify feelings of loneliness.
A 2006 article in the journal Professional School Counseling said studies have shown that gifted children experience higher levels of anxiety, perfectionism, sensitivity and depression. In addition, according to an article in The Journal of Secondary Education, research has indicated that gifted children are very adept at hiding signs of depression, even in severe cases.
School counselors are often in prime position to identify self-esteem issues among gifted students. Muratori says a counseling strategy should include not only a comprehensive assessment of academic ability, including above-grade-level testing, but also other assessments that seem relevant, such as personality assessments, vocational assessments and self-esteem assessments. If necessary, these measures should be used to modify educational strategies to encompass greater academic challenges. The assessments should also be used to help students with social and emotional development as needed.
“If a student performs extremely well on an above-grade-level test in mathematical reasoning, for example, a school counselor can advocate for curricular flexibility and help the student gain access to more advanced course work in math,” Muratori says. “If this student is interested, the counselor might also encourage them to get involved in math-related activities outside of school such as a math circle, a math competition or an academic summer program with an intensive focus on math. Not only will these activities help the student develop their interest in math, they will also give them access to peers with shared interests and the opportunity to develop important social skills.”
“In addition to academic concerns,” she continues, “counselors should also look for indicators that a student may be in distress and in need of an intervention, such as depressed affect, eating disorders, sleep disorders, low motivation, underachievement, boredom, social isolation or disruptive behaviors. Individual or family counseling can help gifted children deal with any number of problems if these issues start to interfere with functioning at home or at school and cause distress.”
Once counselors are aware of the unique challenges that gifted children face, they can more easily implement strategies that help these children develop a healthy and realistic sense of self, Muratori concludes.
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For further reading
Quieting the inner critic: Counseling Today‘s February cover story on helping clients with self-esteem issues: ct.counseling.org/2014/01/quieting-the-inner-critic/
Research cited in this article:
• “Underachievement and Creativity: Are Gifted Underachievers Highly Creative?” Kyung Hee Kim, Creativity Research Journal, April 2008
“Addressing Counseling Needs of Gifted Students,” Jean Sunde Peterson, Professional School Counseling, October 2006
“Depressive disorder in highly gifted adolescents,” P. Susan Jackson and Jean Peterson, The Journal of Secondary Education, Spring 2003