Monday, December 3, 2018

How not to shame a gifted child

Why would a child feel ashamed of being gifted?

Some people think being gifted is, well... a gift. You are smart, talented, advantaged. Things come easily. School is a breeze. College entrance should be a piece of cake.

Parents of gifted children, and gifted adults, of course, know otherwise. They know about envy and bullying. They know about ostracism and preconceived notions and media stereotypes. They know that even successful gifted people are criticized. They know that their abilities are at once admired and disparaged, with false claims that no one is truly gifted, and that it only takes grit and practice to achieve.

Given the highly charged emotions projected upon them, gifted children are often confused, troubled, and sometimes ashamed of their talents. They know they are no more responsible for possessing these abilities than for the color of their eyes. Yet, like the tall girl who slouches to mask her height, or the overweight teen who refuses to wear shorts in the scorching heat, gifted children often feel they must hide their true nature. They "dumb themselves down" to mask their gifts, fearful that their differences will provoke taunting and ultimately, isolation.

What is shame and how is it different from guilt?

Guilt typically develops in response to a behavior we have engaged in that conflicts with our values. For example, you might feel a little guilty after a harsh encounter with a sales clerk, or if you avoid a family gathering because you felt too exhausted after work. Shame, on the other hand, reflects feelings about our sense of self. It is more personal than guilt; it encompasses a broader, deeply negative view of who we are. According to Brene Brown, shame is "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging." 

Gifted children have done nothing wrong; yet, many feel shame just for being themselves. This burden of shame not only torments gifted children and teens; it can last a lifetime. Many gifted adults feel ashamed of their abilities, and fearful of repercussions if they shine too brightly. Gifted women, in particular, may worry that their talents will be threatening to potential romantic partners, or will evoke envy and competition at work. Some gifted adults set unrealistically high expectations for themselves, and then feel like impostors or see themselves as failures if they have not achieved their goals.

How can we - as parents, teachers, and as a society - stop the cycle of shame that affects our gifted children?

1. Create a shame-free environment

Although you cannot control what happens outside your home, you can set ground rules for what is acceptable within your family. Some tools for a shame-free environment include the following:

  • Create a haven where quirks, differences, failures, offbeat ideas, creative ventures, norm-breaking, and brainstorming, for example, are welcome. Accept and embrace differences.

  • Tears, sadness and anxiety should never evoke criticism. It won't help the situation, and your child can interpret it as shaming. Sometimes telling your child to "toughen up" or "shake it off" may increase their anxiety. Instead, help them approach any symptoms of anxiety or heightened sensitivity by treating these emotions as understandable reactions that can be managed - not as something shameful.

  • Help your child appreciate that they may be different from the norm, and that is fine with you. Your child may notice your frustration with the school, your efforts to find extra-curriculars and attempts to encourage social interactions. Let them know along the way that you love who they are - differences and all - and your efforts are directed toward finding what will suit their needs.

  • Manage and work through feelings of disappointment about your child's behaviors, so you don't project these feelings onto them. You might feel disappointed when your asynchronous child acts younger than their actual age, or fails to perform well in school due to anxiety. Find the support you need so that your child is not affected by your anxiety, frustration, sadness, or disappointment.

2. Be the person you want your child to be

This is not easy for most of us. But recognize that children model our behaviors and not necessarily our words. Show your child that you can laugh at your mistakes, bounce back from failure, consider new and different perspectives, and that you never mock another's vulnerabilities. Demonstrate how you challenge yourself to approach fears or areas of vulnerability, whether this involves public speaking, wearing that daring bikini, or zip-lining. Show compassion for others, manage your own feelings of envy and longing, and challenge any lingering biases. While none of the above behaviors are specific to giftedness, they will help your child feel safe and confident in their ability to be themselves - differences, quirks, vulnerabilities and all.

3. Address gifted-shaming on a macro level

Finally, keep in mind that advocacy is essential. You didn't sign up for this, but if you want to reduce gifted-shaming, you need to be an "ambassador for the gifted" wherever you go. Educate everyone you know about the facts, help them understand what it means to be gifted, and challenge widespread misunderstanding. Address misconceptions in the schools and among policy-makers. Lend your voice through writing, speaking up, and showing up when legislators, school administrators or the media indirectly shame and minimize the needs of the gifted and high achieving students. Help them "get real" about gifted kids.

4. Don't forget to address your own shame and self-blame

Many parents of gifted children harbor "guilty thoughts" and shame about their worries or feelings of inadequacy. They sometimes doubt their parenting skills, compare their child to others, wish their child could be "normal" like the other kids, and worry about the future. They feel isolated and unable to share their burdens - and joys - with other parents who do not have gifted children. Many downplay their child's accomplishments by pointing out flaws, to offset any appearance of bragging (yes, he won the chess tournament, but you should see his room!). Raising a gifted child can be full of surprises, joy, excitement, and also confusion, disappointment, envy, and frustration. These are commonplace, normal reactions, and feeling ashamed or guilty only makes them worse.

Stop the shaming!

As parents, we can instill good values, caring and respect for others, and motivation to succeed without shaming. We don't have to let our children spiral into shame, self-blame and self-doubt. We can correct their mistakes without criticizing their efforts or basic nature. This is all part of the tough task of parenting. Some of the shame gifted children experience, though, stems from others' misconceptions. As parents, educators, counselors, and legislators, we need to end these misconceptions, false assumptions, and the marginalization of gifted education - all of which can contribute to a false sense of self, confusion and shame. With some effort, gifted children eventually may stop feeling blamed and criticized just for being themselves.


  1. Thank you for this. It is such a problem for my daughter, who pretends to be "average" with her friends. She won't raise her had in class, and does whatever she can to fit in. I am concerned that she will feel like an impostor when she gets older.

    1. Anonymous, I hope your daughter eventually will discover and embrace her "authentic" self and feel comfortable sharing who she really is with others.

  2. Omg this is so me. In a few times i wish my son to be just 'normal' worrying too much if he might not fit in someday. And its very hard to not be able to be honest when everybody around asking how could your son doing very good? I would just reply with, ah he is just lucky this time. Not because im ashamed with giftedness but i really dont want my son to get hurt. A few of my friends had reacted badly once i being honest. They would thought that i am about to say that my son is the best in the world. Even though i didnt say anything. I just answer their question and they are starting to judge.

    1. Anonymous, Yes, it is often as hard for the parents, as well. We worry about how our child will fit in, and also feel we must downplay our child's abilities and accomplishments because others may perceive it as bragging. What is most important, though, is how we convey our attitude to our child. I hope you are able to sort out the best way to navigate this situation.

  3. Wonderful post and so true. Also, so emblematic that I don't even feel comfortable sharing this to my Facebook feed, because while many parents would benefit from reading this (and I'll definitely share it in a private message to them), I also know too many people who would see my posting this as bragging, egotistical, elitist, etc. ... and I don't just mean parents. Sadly, as an academic myself, I know too many other academics who harbor those misconceptions and resentments -- even though they're perpetuating the shame/guilt of some of their students. I've had so many students cry in my office when I introduced them to books such as Collins' "Living with Intensity." Like I myself experienced, it often isn't until their adulthood that they realize there's nothing *wrong* with them inherently, because much of what they experienced was at best snubbed by others, and at worst pathologized. :-( So thank you! :-)

    1. Andrea, Thank you for your feedback. You summarize so well the misconceptions and subsequent shaming that continue to occur. It is striking that people involved in educating our youth sometimes hold these beliefs. Thanks again.

  4. My daughter is dealing with this right now. She is in 7th grade, has very limited friends in this grade, but likes to hang out with some 8th graders. Some of her peers will say things like: "You're too good for us huh?" and she has doesn't want to ask questions in class and comes home crying if her grade is good but not excellent because she puts extremely high standards on her work. I've shared this article with her GT teacher, because I expect there are more kids in our school struggling with this. Thank you!

    1. It sounds like your daughter is going through what is so common for many gifted students. I hope that she finds a peer group where she is comfortable and learns to let go of the pressure she is putting on herself.