Saturday, June 1, 2019

The interface of anxiety, overthinking, and shame among gifted children and teens

Most gifted children quickly learn that they differ from their peers. Even if they are not openly rejected or bullied, many still feel isolated. The burdens of their outlier status, uncertainty about whether to mask their giftedness, and never quite feeling they belong  - all take their toll.

Gifted kids cannot just sit back, relax, and be themselves. They cannot expect to find friends wherever they go, or assume that school will be challenging, or trust that their teachers or coaches will understand and respect their differences. Their minds are working overtime as they size up each situation, decide how to act, and debate whether to display or hide their true nature.

Even though gifted people are no more susceptible to mental illness than anyone else, some gifted children and teens struggle with a tendency toward overthinking, worry, or cautious alertness. This tendency may develop despite the presence of a loving, supportive family, the absence of past trauma, a family history devoid of anxiety or depression, and a nervous system that is not necessarily "wired" to be hyper-responsive and reactive. It just goes with the giftedness territory.

Some gifted children seem to develop a finely tuned radar for the tempo and feel of the social world around them. This heightens their painful recognition of their differences, and the "burden" of expectations. They know they differ from their same-age peers, grasp information at a faster rate, crave intensity, depth, and intellectual challenge, and resign themselves to never fitting the norm.

Many gifted children hold high standards for themselves. While sometimes this is encouraged by family and teachers, more often it arises from an awareness of their own capabilities. They recognize their advantages in learning, and may assume academics should come easily. They may expect to always excel, and feel shame if they falter or receive a low grade on an exam. Some give up after a failure experience, and refuse to push themselves any further. Others may become anxious, driven and perfectionistic, focusing on success above all else. Achievement is seen as essential if they are to avoid feelings of shame.

What happens when gifted children and teens recognize their perceived flaws or differences?

While those rare few may shrug it off, most will at least ponder their predicament. Many more will respond with anxiety, overthinking, and shame. The self-awareness that accompanies giftedness is compounded by peer pressure, social media comparisons, adolescent hormones, and their own high expectations. Gifted children and teens judge any perceived ineptness harshly, and feel shame when they cannot effortlessly engage with others. They mull over past conversations, dissect minute details, and berate themselves for any misstep. They worry that they will be exposed as "ungifted" - impostors who cannot excel at every task, and are not smart after all. Shame pervades their sense of self.

Recognizing the shame cycle

Shame involves the belief that one is deeply flawed and that this flaw will be exposed to others. Brene Brown defines shame as: "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging." Shame differs from guilt, which typically involves regret for past behaviors. Shame both results from and fuels overthinking and anxiety. Gifted children and teens caught in this vicious cycle remain entrenched in a seemingly endless battle against themselves.

Most children caught in the anxiety and shame cycle will block your efforts to challenge their beliefs. Words of reason and logic fall on deaf ears. Attempts to highlight their strengths (you are more mature than most of those kids, anyway) or put their distress in perspective (years from now, prom won't matter) or diffuse their perfectionistic drive (we love you no matter what your get on the exam) demonstrate your love and support, and may sink in to some extent. However, most gifted children and teens may respond with a typical, "You just don't get it!." The emotions they are experiencing in the moment are powerful and meaningful to them. You just cannot talk them out of their feelings.

How can you help?

Several approaches may ease the sting of anxiety and shame. Some basic tips include the following:

1. Create a shame-free environment at home, where differences are accepted, and emotions are never mocked or criticized.

2. Practice calming and mindfulness techniques with your child to encourage focusing on the present rather than worrying about the past or predicting the future. Calming techniques can include a range of deep breathing and deep muscle relaxation exercises, and many apps for this are available. Lessons in self-compassion can help gifted children appreciate and accept who they are, rather than harboring shame for not fitting the norm.

3. Plan for anxiety-producing situations, such as exams, and help your child develop strategies for coping with them. Tips for taming test anxiety can be found here.

4. When emotions run high, encourage your child to research the facts. Suggest taking on the role of a junior scientist, journalist or attorney, and seek out the data. For example, many overthinking traps, such as all-or-nothing thinking, assuming knowledge of what another person thinks, and imagining the worst possible outcome are common anxiety triggers. Encourage your child to uncover the truth rather than adhere to unproven assumptions that escalate fear.

5. Engage your child's active mind to identify calming strategies. Calming words or phrases can provide comfort during times of stress. Imagining a relaxing place, such as the beach or the woods, can be centering. Music and art serve as expressive outlets and calming support. Imaginal rehearsal, where your child pictures successful mastery of an anxiety-provoking task, can ease the jitters ahead of time. This might include imagining the steps involved in a successful class presentation, asking a friend for a favor, or sitting calmly through an exam.

The strategies listed above take practice. Your child might benefit from the additional support of a licensed mental health professional, especially if you notice signs of clinical depression or disabling anxiety, such as hopelessness, sleep and appetite disturbance, self-harm, excessive mood swings, panic attacks, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, a sudden drop in grades or a change in behavior. Anxiety and shame do not need to dampen your gifted child's experience. No child should have to suffer.

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Blog Hop on Thoughts from the Mental Trenches, Thoughts from the Depths. To see more blogs, click on this link.

Image may contain: text


  1. I love how your articles are always so thorough and succinct at the same time, Gail. I appreciate your suggestions.

    1. Thanks, Paula. Always appreciate your wonderful feedback!


  2. A lot of these issues definitely amped up when my daughter turned 11 and became more cognizant of her own ‘otherness’. The latest manifestation is a nagging feeling that an autism diagnosis may explain all of this, so our trip to the mental health professional may be simply to uncover the truth about whether this is the case. Do you find many health professionals are well-versed in the nuance of these situations or is there a specific credential to look for? She truly fits none of the DSM criteria unless someone would be willing to play very fast and loose with social nuances of what it’s like to have relationships as an 11 year old to begin with and ignore the aspects of gifted ness. As her mother, I hesitate to have a complex issue explained away by slapping my daughter with a self-fulfilling label that doesn’t truly apply to her and does nothing to help her in the long run.

    1. Melissa, I understand your concerns. Getting an evaluation can be enlightening, but if it is inaccurate, you can end up with a label that creates problems. Look for someone highly recommended by your pediatrician, the school psychologist, or is listed with the state psychological association as experienced with children. Hoagie's Gifted has a listing of therapists and psychologists who specialize in giftedness in each state. Ask whomever your child works with about the interplay between ASD and giftedness, or giftedness and any other diagnosis. Ask how her age and development may affect possible changes in how her symptoms or behaviors will manifest as she gets older. Good luck!

  3. I love that you offered not only a reflection, but also some tips at the end. I especially love the idea of using mental energy to research the facts when emotions are going haywire. This is a great tip!

  4. thank you! very helpful.wondering if there's material like this that could be read directly by a teen? (directed to them)

    1. Iyen, That is a great thought. I don't have any specific books to recommend, but you could check with Prufrock Press, Great Potential Press, or Free Spirit Publishing for some books that might relate. Good luck!