Monday, August 8, 2016

Tips for helping your socially isolated gifted teen

We know that social isolation can have a negative impact on teens, affecting their quality of life, and increasing the risk for depression and even suicide. We also know that gifted teens, in particular, may face isolation at times, as they wrestle with interpersonal challenges in a peer culture where they struggle to fit in.

How can you help your socially isolated teen?

In Part I of this series, "Is your gifted teen socially isolated?" some of the causes of social isolation were outlined. While spending time alone may not necessarily signal a problem, such as when an introverted child is immersed in a creative project or when there are few like-minded peers available, sometimes withdrawal can be cause for concern. When time alone is excessive, reflects a sudden change in behavior, is a symptom of distress or an emotional/behavioral problem, involves an internet "addiction," or reflects a chronic pattern of social avoidance or interpersonal difficulties, parents may need to get involved.

What should you do?

As a parent, you need to gather information and sort out whether time spent alone is harmless, a behavior that prevents your child from enjoying her teen years to their fullest, or is a symptom of something even more troubling. The first step involves speaking openly with your child, despite any resistance you might encounter. You know your child best, so identify the ideal time and place where she might be most receptive to communicating. An additional challenge can involve finding words that won't set your child into a tailspin of defensiveness. The following are some suggestions for expressing your concerns:

  • Initial questions (opening questions that are least likely to evoke defensiveness):
"I see you're not going over Jake's house any more, or going to any parties. Is that OK with you?"
"You've been sleeping a lot lately. Are you feeling OK, or is it just hard to get out of bed sometimes?"
"I know you were pretty upset last week when you were overlooked for that award. Lots of times, things like that linger and bother people for a while. I wonder if that might be bothering you - and if it is, maybe we could come up with ideas for not letting it be so bothersome any more." 

What if this doesn't work? 

If these basic openings don't get you very far, and your teen just shrugs or responds with monosyllables, you may need to press further. Of course, it is always ideal to use "I" statements, to try to keep your anxiety to yourself, and to withhold judgments about your teen or his friends' behaviors.

  • More specific questions (examples):
"I see that you have been spending a lot more time in your room than you used to, and I am just checking in to make sure you are OK and that there isn't something going on that is upsetting you. I know you might not want to talk about it, but as your parent, I love you and am always there to talk if you need to." 
"I couldn't help but overhear you crying in your room. It is almost impossible to ignore you when you are that upset, so I want to check in with you. Please let me know how I can help you sort out whatever is bothering you."
"I realize that going to big events like dances have been kind of hard for you. Feeling uncomfortable and anxious feels awful, I know... but missing out is no fun either. There are ways around this. Please let me help you figure out what might help make these events easier for you."

And if that still doesn't work... 

If you still get very little feedback, or if your child's behavior warrants more serious attention, you may need to assert yourself even more strongly.

  • The most assertive questions (examples):
"I know you don't like it when I ask about your social life, but I am concerned about how little time you're spending with friends. You used to like to see them, and now you never go out. It is very unlike you to stay home all the time and I can't help but think that something is going on or that something is bothering you. If there is something upsetting you, please let me know. I love you and am here to help you sort out whatever is going on"
"I am concerned that you aren't eating much lately and seem to be up half of the night. You have been looking unhappy, and I know you haven't wanted to talk about it, but I can't overlook the fact that something is wrong. We need to figure out what is bothering you and come up with ideas that might help." 
"When you say things like 'nothing matters much to me anymore' it really concerns me. I know you might roll your eyes, but as your parent, I just have to ask you: have you ever thought that you wanted to hurt yourself or didn't want to live? If that ever crossed your mind, you need to tell me. There are a lot of things that you can keep private, but keeping those kinds of thoughts to yourself is not an option."

If your teen still refuses to talk to you, it may be time to insist that she speak with another trusted adult, such as her pediatrician, spiritual leader, a trusted family friend, close relative, or even a coach or music teacher. Sometimes another adult may be able to get her talking and convince her to speak with you.

The next step

Gathering information from your child, even if it is accompanied by initial resistance or conflict, will give you an idea about the scope of the problem. As long as it does not reflect an emotional or behavioral problem (e.g., depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm) which requires professional help, you can start to guide your child toward finding a solution.

1. Exploring new ideas

Ask your teen to identify as many reasons as possible for the problem. Brainstorming is an important tool for recognizing a range of available possibilities and for curtailing any tendency to quickly form conclusions without evaluating all of the facts. For example, your child may assume that a friend is not speaking to him because he doesn't like him any more. You might ask your child to write a list of at least ten other reasons why his friend could be avoiding him. Even if most of the reasons seem far-fetched, it will help your child shake loose some of the rigid beliefs and preconceived notions that perpetuate his assumptions.

2. Identifying strategies

Once your teen has brainstormed a list of reasons for the problem, help her identify strategies for managing the situation. These can include changing the situation or removing the offending agent (e.g., switching out of a class that is causing distress), taking action (e.g., telling her friend what is upsetting her), or changing her attitude (e.g., recognizing how her insecurity or self-doubt contribute to negative expectations about herself). Encourage her to sort out the benefits and drawbacks of each strategy and to come up with a plan of action, along with a back-up plan.

3. Encouraging autonomy when possible

Offer to help - but encourage your child's autonomy. Invite him to make his own decisions every step of the way - even when this is hard for you. Ask if you can offer your opinions and ideas; however, if he comes up with a solution you think will be harmful, let him know your reservations - even if he doesn't want to hear it. Using "I" statements helps with any suggestions you might offer (e.g., "I have found that pushing myself to go to things I don't like helps me overcome my fear. What do you think about that strategy for you?"). Sharing your own experiences can be helpful at times (e.g., I was shy when I was your age, too), but long drawn-out stories might be met with eye-rolling. And be straightforward about any decisions that would directly affect him, such as speaking to his teacher. Otherwise, he might feel blindsided and start to lose trust.

 4. Working behind the scenes.

As much as encouraging autonomy is important, you are still the adult and have the insight and access to information your child lacks. It may be up to you to find additional resources for your child or initiate changes. If her school is an unrelenting problem, with few available options for academic enrichment or contact with like-minded peers, it may fall on you to search for another educational environment (assuming this is financially possible). If she cannot find a peer group at school, you may need to research extra-curricular activities that will spark her interest and passion. Summer camps, such as SIG and CTY provide a safe place for gifted children to convene, and specialty camps based on interests ranging from coding to music to robotics can be a much-needed refuge for these children. Financial aid and scholarships are sometimes available.

5. Finding support 

Sometimes brainstorming, changing the situation, and devising even the most creative plans aren't enough. Sometimes your gifted teen might need therapeutic support. While this is most apparent when there is an emotional or behavioral component to the isolation, it can also help your teen cope with the vicissitudes of gifted overexcitabilities and oversensitivities, all of which can complicate life for these amazing kids. Shyness, social anxiety, asynchronous development, an acute awareness of social injustice, feeling different from peers - all of these can take their toll. Gifted adolescents benefit from the support, guidance and input of licensed mental health professionals experienced with giftedness, who can help them embrace their strengths, accept who they are, and find solutions that will address their isolation.

What strategies have helped your child?


  1. I love your posts and it's reassuring to know that many gifted teens have trouble relating to their peers. It can feel so unusual, and can even be isolating for the parents when their friends' kids all have busy social lives. And, the friends' kids may also be bright, although probably not in the same category, so they really don't understand what the "problem" is. I would love to see this addressed in one of your posts! We are just hoping that once we get our son through these difficult years he can actually find a tribe with whom he can relate.

    1. Anonymous, Thank you for your feedback! I agree - it is a challenge for parents when we see other families who seemingly have it "easy" with children who breeze through their busy social lives (although there always may be problems we don't know about). Raising a gifted child is an adjustment for any parent - and it evokes a range of uncomfortable feelings.

      Thanks for the nudge to write more about this! I have already written a few blog posts about parent guilt and anxiety that you might want to look at: and

      Good luck with your son, and eventually he should find others who will be able to appreciate him.