Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Sending your gifted child to college: Providing support when fears arise

As families pack up their new college students for the journey ahead, emotions can range from exhilaration and relief to anxiety and sorrow. But coupled with the all too common worries about making new friends, dating, academics and fighting with roommates, gifted college freshman can harbor some particular questions and fears.

Many gifted teens are academically and emotionally unprepared for college.

Even those gifted teens who achieved high grades or received scholastic awards may have coasted through school feeling bored and unfulfilled. Many never had the opportunity to master truly challenging academics, face failure, or exert much effort despite achieving good grades. The end result can be underlying self-doubt, a poor work ethic, and/or an overinflated sense of their talents.

As Elaine Tuttle Hansen, executive director of Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, stated several months ago in her column on college-bound students, “it's time to acknowledge that even top students may have college-readiness problems.” 

Inadequate academic preparation may be the most obvious challenge for some, and may come as a rude awakening to gifted adolescents who exerted little effort in high school. Despite efforts to find the right fit, college can present a range of challenges. Late night distress calls home, however, are often more reflective of the emotional rather than academic challenges these teens face as they start college. The questions gifted students may have include the following:

Will I fit in?

Gifted teens may have gotten used to being viewed as different, outliers, or non-conformists, yet eventually settled into a familiar niche by the end of high school, even if they longed for something new. Entering a completely different social environment, though, may reawaken anxiety about peer acceptance, memories of earlier incidents of bullying, or insecurity about their interpersonal skills. They may worry about rejection, and question whether they should be true to themselves or suppress their natural curiosity or quirky interests.

Parents can remind them that they have new opportunities to meet different friends, that anxiety is common for most incoming freshman, and that they could look for clubs, groups and other activities where they can find like-minded peers. Point out that they eventually found their place in high school, and this will happen in college. If they continue to struggle, appear depressed, or show signs of excessive anxiety, they should be encouraged to seek out support from the college counseling center.

Will I be noticed?

The small fish, big pond world of most college campuses is a harsh reality for many accomplished students, especially when praise and recognition have bolstered underlying insecurity. Even small colleges can seem overwhelming when no one knows an individual’s abilities. While it may be a welcome relief to share classes with so many equally talented students, it can be a humbling reminder to gifted children that they are not so special after all.

Parents can point out that they will find their niche eventually, that it takes time to build connections, and that they are “special” regardless of how much they shine. Their “job” is to learn, grow and gain a good education. They do not have to be the best; they need to work hard, develop new skills, and find their path.

Will I succeed?

Praised for their talents and permitted to languish in “easy” classes, many gifted adolescents have no idea about what it takes to achieve success. College may provide the first awareness that talent is not enough; drive, hard work, organizational skills, and vision are necessary to get ahead. This sobering reality may force them to master new skills that are unfamiliar to them. To belabor a metaphor, the “small fish” may also feel like a fish out of water. Conversely, some gifted students have been perfectionists from the start, and place even more pressure on themselves once they reach college.

Remind them that college is not just geared toward academic learning, but toward the development of life lessons and skills toward a future career. They are learning what some of their peers recognized years ago; you have to work hard to achieve what you want. They also may have to ask for help, develop study skills, and reach out for guidance in difficult academic subjects. Perfectionistic students need to challenge their self-imposed standards and recognize when their expectations are too extreme.

Who am I without my talents?

Some gifted adolescents have become so identified with their talents and accomplishments that they question what might become of them without continued success. Their identity has been interwoven with recognition, awards and perfect test scores, and they may worry that any digression from this would betray loved ones and teachers who have championed their strengths. Even more, they may fear losing a sense of themselves if they fail to perform at a high level. While some existential anxiety is common for most college students, gifted students who overidentify with their achievements might limit class selection or career goals that present any risk, or feel guilt and despair if performance does not meet expectations.

Gifted adolescents need to be reminded that they are loved and appreciated for much more than their talents and abilities. Point out that they need to take risks to try new skills, take on new challenges, and investigate different forms of learning while in college. Remind them that what is most important is their intrinsic strength of character unrelated to their intellect. If they continue to experience feelings of depression, anxiety, or obsessive worrying about performance, counseling should be considered.

On a positive note...

Despite these fears, most gifted adolescents feel relieved and even thrilled to be in college. They are finally in an environment that values higher level thinking, intellectual engagement, and achievement. They no longer have to “hide” their interests and abilities due to fear of being criticized. They are surrounded by like-minded peers who also want to learn.

Best wishes for your child's safe, joyful and enlightening journey.

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