Monday, August 1, 2016

Is your gifted teen socially isolated?

Parents typically worry about their socially active teens - out with friends, going to parties, running off to do who knows what.

But what happens when your child seems socially isolated or withdrawn?

Gifted teens, in particular, may struggle to fit in and find their niche; they may withdraw after years of feeling different from peers, unable to find friends who truly understand them. It can be heartbreaking to watch your child stay home night after night - even if you don't have to worry about parties and alcohol.

We know that social isolation can have negative effects for teens. It can impact their quality of life, result in feelings of sadness, emptiness, and low self-esteem, and is associated with an increased risk for depression and even suicide.

What can you do?


The first step is determining whether your teen's time alone is cause for concern. Gifted adolescent behavior can be mislabeled or misdiagnosed, and your child's time alone may not necessarily reflect a problem. Several examples include the following:

  • Your teen might be an introvert who prefers time alone to recharge, immerse himself in creative ideas, or engage in solo activities. A high proportion of gifted people have been identified as introverts, so it is possible your child might be one. 

  • Your child is adapting to the reality that she has few friends who share her view of the world. She may feel different from her peers, and has accepted that until she graduates, she would rather entertain herself than conform to her peer group's expectations. Also, if asynchronous development is an aspect of her giftedness, her social skills and interests may not correspond with those of students her age.

  • Your teen could be engrossed in a sudden new interest that sparks his imagination and excitement. If he seems enthused, energized and can barely come up for air, it might be a temporary immersion in a new passion where he is in a state of creative "flow." As long as he still takes some time for friends and family, the intensity may fade and he should eventually find more balance in his activities.


Sometimes, though, spending time alone can signal a problem, especially if it is:


  • excessive (your child rarely spends time with family or any friends). Even introverts need to socialize. Refusing to socialize much at all or abstaining from almost every social event can be a sign that your child is feeling distressed, or at the very least, lonely and isolated.

  • a sudden change in behavior (a highly or even moderately social child suddenly withdraws). Any dramatic shift in behavior can signal emotional distress, an upsetting fall-out with friends, or feelings of guilt or shame related to some real or perceived misdeed.

  • accompanied by other signs of distress (depression, anxiety, panic attacks, an increase in angry outbursts, a change in sleeping or eating patterns, self-destructive behaviors, eating disorders or substance abuse). These symptoms need to be taken seriously and often require some supportive treatment.

  • a symptom of a long-standing, problematic pattern that causes your child to withdraw (such as excessive shyness, social anxiety, low self-esteem or poor body image, trauma resulting from previous incidents of bullying, or interpersonal difficulties due to feeling like an outlier from peers, asynchronous development, or even an autism spectrum disorder). Even if these behaviors are long-standing, they can contribute to further distress and isolation and often warrant some form of intervention or treatment.

  • a reflection of what might be considered an internet "addiction,"  (where your teen seems excessively preoccupied with screen time, prefers video/computer activities to time with friends, and/or forms online relationships through games that become his primary source of support). Most teens are attached to their phones, but when the above listed signs are present, it can signal a problem.

If your teen seems socially isolated, what is the next step?



It is critical to identify the severity of the problem and potential for long-term consequences. A temporary reaction to conflict with a close friend is quite different from clinical depression. First, see if you can help your child put the problems in perspective, brainstorm ideas that might remedy the situation (such as finding more options for meeting like-minded peers), or come up with a plan to remove the offending agent (such as dropping a class or reducing screen time). If a distressing situation seems like it may persist - anything from despair over classes that cannot meet her needs to mental health symptoms - action is needed. Speaking directly with school counselors or seeking therapeutic support with a licensed mental health professional can be essential. More specifics about how you can help your socially isolated teen will follow in Part II of this series.

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education page blog hop on Social Issues. To see more blogs, click on the following link: http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_social_issues.htm

16 comments:

  1. This is a helpful post- the line between an introverted teen's need for space and true withdrawal can be a blurry one. I always appreciate reading about gifted teens. Thank you!

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    1. Thanks, Cait. I agree, it is often hard to distinguish what is appropriate time alone and when it signals a problem. It is particularly hard for an anxious parent to know what to think. I appreciate your feedback!

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  2. Looking forward to Part II. We have the crazy mix of asynchronous development, introversion and auditory processing difficulties compounded by living in a smaller community. Two years of homeschooling has helped with gaining autonomy and self-confidence but we still worry. A lot.

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    1. Dandy, I appreciate your input. Worrying seems to be common when you're juggling so many variables. But it sounds like you've done a lot to try to remedy the situation. Good luck.

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  3. SOOOOO important to discern if the isolation is masking something much darker or if it's just a natural part of the teenage process of pulling away from family as they work to redefine their own identity.

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    1. Alessa, Thank you for your comments. I agree - sorting out when it's "normal" and when it is something more is so important, and it can be difficult when it comes to the ups and downs with teens. Important point about how they are pulling away to form their own identity - something essential for all adolescents and young adults. Thanks!

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  4. Thank you for a wonderful post! I love your point about introverts and your advice on distinguishing between possible causes. I am looking forward to part two, as well!

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  5. I have a teen who just started high school and knows 4 kids out of the 2200. While he hasn't yet talked about eating lunch with a friend (breaks my heart), I also remember that just last year numerous kids clamored to sit with him and it'll come. He's fine with it so far, but is definitely in transition at a new school and being an introvert content to play video games just makes it trickier, but I'll give it time. Thanks for bringing it to the forefront for me and for distinguishing the differences.

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    1. Atlas,

      It is so hard to hold back our worries as parents. It sounds like your son has found his way before, so hopefully will find the right fit soon. Good luck.

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  6. My 13 year old has been socially isolated for years; which never seems to bother him but I worry. Only recently did I connect the possibility of his giftedness with his highly, highly introverted personality.
    I have tried counselors but I am beginning to think I may need to bring him to a child psychologist that specializes in gifted children. Thoughts?? Thanks!

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    1. Vicky, If you feel that your child's isolation is problematic, it can be helpful to find a mental health professional who understands giftedness. You could always start with your pediatrician, school counselor, or your minister/priest/rabbi for referrals. If they don't have any ideas, you could check the Hoagie's Gifted website for a list of therapists, or check with your state psychological association or social work association, for example. Try to avoid getting referrals from your insurance company, since those are often fairly random and not specific to your needs. Good luck.

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  7. My 16-yr old son prefers to be alone at home (truly an introvert), but has friends within his gifted peer group. I used to worry about underlying depression or social anxiety, and still continue to watch for "outlier" behavior. HE admits he doesn't want to socialize with most teens, preferring adults. The worst is he refuses to talk to counselors. Some of his withdrawal from family is due to adolescence / creating his own identity.
    I could use help identifying "internet/phone" obsession, since my son uses his smart phone primarily as a reading / YouTube device. And he doesn't usually respond to texts or phone calls.
    Beth L

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    1. That's a tough one. It sounds like you are keeping a close watch on him. Adolescents are very private, especially boys, and it is sometimes hard to know what is really going on. I would imagine that if he started to show signs of depression or anxiety, you would notice it. Good luck.

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  8. Thank you for sharing these warning signs. It can be difficult as a parent to know when there is an issue that needs to be addressed versus "normal" behavior. Thanks Gail!

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