Thursday, June 19, 2014

Caught in the middle: How to help gifted children survive the middle school years

Caught in the middle.

Just when life seemed manageable, middle school-aged children face confusion and uncertainty. Social demands, hormonal changes, and a burgeoning sense of independence challenge the self that once was. New worlds unfold, and the old rules from elementary school don't work any more. Neither child nor adult, they must discover who they are and how to define themselves.

Giftedness complicates matters even further. Heightened sensitivity, introversion, asynchronous development, a preoccupation with fairness, and intensely focused interests can make the middle school years even more difficult to navigate.

What challenges of middle school do gifted children face?

Fitting in - All middle school children face pressure to conform; how much they choose to conform and how well they manage to fit in can determine whether they gain acceptance. Wearing the right clothes, affecting that certain attitude, and following the music, sports and pop culture icons of the moment are critical. Each middle school creates its own social hierarchy, and traits associated with giftedness are rarely valued. Intellectual interests, academic striving, emotional sensitivity, and concern about the meaning of life are not typical priorities for most middle school students. As a result, gifted children question whether to conform and disguise who they are, or find a small, select group of like-minded peers and remain an outlier from the larger group.

Bullying - A more serious threat is the risk of being bullied. The gifted child's intellectual differences, sensitivity, and talents can be targeted by other children. Due to their highly developed sense of fairness and justice, gifted children may be appalled by a social culture that perpetuates bullying, and feel unprepared to defend themselves. Those who lag behind in social skills may be particularly unprepared to navigate these challenges when bullying is part of the school environment. Repeated bullying can contribute to anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, isolation from others and physical complaints, and can create lasting emotional scars.

Underachievement - Enthusiasm for learning, often embraced throughout elementary school, sometimes fades in middle school. A variety of factors may play a role with underachievement: social distractions, disappointment and boredom with classes, a decision to "dumb themselves down" to fit in, or role confusion. Gifted girls, in particular, may mask their intellectual skills to be more attractive to boys. And in schools where sports are highly valued, boys may assume that they cannot be athletic and pursue academic interests at the same time.

Identity formation - Middle school is a time when teens start to define themselves. Despite the pressure of conformity and a rigid school culture, most young gifted teens develop a distinct sense of who they are, with strong preferences, interests, and opinions. As they come to terms with their abilities, they must decide how this identity will form their sense of self. Will they hide their giftedness so that they can fit in with peers? Or will they embrace their identity as a "smart kid" or "nerd," regardless of the social consequences? Can they be smart and athletic? Can they be popular and achieve good grades?

A new awakening - Gifted middle school-aged teens open their eyes to the world around them with startling acuity. They start to question values and see the complexity and uncertainty inherent in what they once trusted. They may lose respect for authority figures, abandon family values and religious beliefs, and question the meaning and purpose of their existence. This painful existential awakening can eventually help them understand and define themselves more clearly. But, it may be confusing and difficult for a child to navigate. Some gifted children find a cause or activity that captivates their interests, while others may become anxious, depressed or disengaged.

Gifted middle school children need their parents' guidance as they navigate this difficult transition. Since middle school is considered a difficult time for most children, a gifted child's concerns could be easily dismissed as part of "normal" growing pains. Yet, their intensity, sensitivity, and the limited availability of true peers increases the likelihood of a rough road. Some manage without difficulty, but others continue to struggle throughout high school and beyond, battling underachievement, depression or feelings of alienation.

What can parents do to help them?

1. Tune in and listen. Pay attention to what they say and what they don't say. Notice changes in behavior, loss of interest in activities, refusal to spend time with friends. Other signs of concern include sleep problems, changes in appetite, apathy, a drop in grades, physical complaints (without a known medical cause), anxiety, or extreme irritability.

2. Ask them directly about their lives. What, are you kidding? OK, many teens are as closed as a vault, but with some timing and skill, you can find out more about what they are feeling. Sometimes teens are more receptive to communication when sharing an activity you both enjoy, riding in the car, or talking before bed. Parents know their children best and can usually find a good time to start the conversation.

3. Keep your emotions in check. Yes, it is upsetting and even infuriating to see your child struggle. But parents need to manage their own feelings without placing this added burden on their children. Middle school is a time when life feels out of control for many children. It's OK to show children that you feel angry about an injustice at school or empathize with how they feel. If your sadness or rage is excessive, though, they won't have the calm, stable foundation they need during this difficult time. If you need support, reach out to adult family members, friends, or a counselor. Even an online forum can help.

4. Withhold judgment. Quickly coming to conclusions, offering immediate advice, or taking charge will backfire. Children either rebel (through angry refusal or passive eye-rolling), or initially comply, but fail to develop the skills to negotiate difficult social situations. Your advice is valuable, but first help them sort through possible solutions to the problem. Ask what they think might work, help them brainstorm, and weigh the pros and cons of different outcomes.

5. Advocate, advocate. When schools offer little in terms of options for gifted children, parents need to strategically advocate for services their children deserve. The teacher, principal, administration and school board may need input regarding what your child and what all gifted children need. Get educated about the needs of gifted children.

6. Seek support. Most importantly, if the school is unable to help, or if your child is showing signs of emotional distress, it is critical to seek guidance or counseling. While services may be available through the school, you may need to find a therapist outside of school who can meet with you and your child. Your pediatrician or the school psychologist are often excellent resources for recommending referrals in your area.

What has helped your middle school-aged child? Let us know!


  1. My daughter got through middle school by staying close with a small group from her travel soccer team, which helped her to "escape" from being the gifted student at school. It gave her some relief and another outlet. But she still felt left out sometimes at school. It got easier in high school, though.

    1. Finding an interest outside of school is a great way to connect with friends and develop a sense of identity. It's good that she found a niche for herself.

  2. My son found middle school unbearable, so we pulled him out in the beginning of 6th grade. We are now in our 2nd year of homeschooling. We can meet his needs academically, but the social part is hard. Even when tiny, he only made intellectual connections with other children. My son is uninterested in even trying to connect with age peers because he can't relate to their interests and attitudes, and he seems to be currently convincing himself that he doesn't like people in general, which is upsetting. We've tried different clubs, etc., but it's still difficult to find compatible kids. I am finding some hope in the idea that high school years may be easier--except that since he loves to work at his own accelerated pace, I'm afraid high school courses "won't fit" any more once he gets there. I sometimes feel he won't find his "peeps" until college, which seems a very long way off.

    1. Christine, Middle school is difficult in so many ways, but especially for gifted teens who can't find peers who "get them." It must be so hard to watch your son pull away from social connections, since most are not fulfilling. Hopefully, he can eventually find some friends in clubs or activities, and I agree that this may resolve more easily when he gets older. Good luck.