It is heartbreaking to witness a gifted or twice-exceptional child's exclusion from peers. You watch helplessly from the sidelines as other children easily connect on the playground, receive party invitations, and effortlessly attract friends. Your child's attempts to socialize are more frequently declined - sometimes with aloof avoidance and other times with blatant rejection. You can't play with us! You're not invited!
From an early age, gifted and twice-exceptional children recognize their differences. They notice how they grasp information more quickly than their same-age peers. They feel frustrated when other children don't get their jokes or don't understand their "rules" for a complicated game. Yet, they also feel the sting of rejection when excluded or teased. Some internalize the mocking comments lobbed toward them. Geek. Weirdo. Nerd. Or much worse...
Gifted children thrive when surrounded by like-minded peers, where they can converse freely, share similar interests, engage in healthy competition, and where they no longer feel compelled to hide their talents. Whether at the local playground, in their neighborhood, or on the soccer field, few gifted children find friends who truly "get them." Their sense of isolation and "differentness" intensifies within most typical classroom settings; when schools refuse to implement ability grouping - an option that might engender a sense of belonging and connection - gifted students remain isolated and misunderstood.
What can you do when your child does not fit in?
How can you help your child find like-minded peers, and navigate the social climate while still remaining true to themselves? What will guide them toward developing the necessary social skills - without requiring excessive conformity and compromise? And how do you address these concerns without conveying your own feelings of anxiety, disappointment, or frustration? The following are a few suggestions:
1. First, help your child understand giftedness
Parents sometimes avoid explaining giftedness to their children - concerned that understanding their giftedness might place too much pressure on them or instill an arrogant sense of self. However, your child already recognizes that they differ from their peers and view themselves and the world differently. A clear, no-frills explanation conveys the facts without implying that they are better than other children, and provides a context for what they already know to be true about themselves. It helps them understand why finding friends might seem elusive. You can tailor your language to fit your child's developmental level and capacity to understand what it means to be gifted. It is essential for you as a parent to take on this task before someone else does and mishandles it. For more about how to share information about giftedness with your child, see this link.
2. Help them appreciate that it is "normal" to feel they are different.
Many gifted and twice-exceptional children are accustomed to seeing themselves as outliers and out of sync with children their age. This awareness of their "differentness" and separateness is valid; they are different. Pretending they are neurotypical, denying their giftedness, or assuming they should easily fit in discounts their reality. Your empathy and support - along with a clear acknowledgment that they are different - will help them feel understood. Their reactions are "normal" and understandable.
3. Help your child understand their resistance - or anxiety - about navigating social interactions
Remind your child that it is understandable and normal to feel uncomfortable in new social situations. (You might also, briefly, share a few stories of your own!) Help them discover what negative thoughts, fears, and frustrations interfere. Ask them what thoughts (e.g., I just know they will laugh at me if I try to dance at the party) contribute to their worries. Find out if frustrations with their peers' interests (e.g., I hate it when they talk about popular songs when I want to discuss politics) leave them on the sidelines. Some of their concerns may be realistic; they might be less mature than their same-age peers or have little interest in popular culture. Recognizing their own struggles can be particularly painful for a gifted child who typically excels in most other situations. Once they appreciate that their resistance and difficulties are normal - and manageable - they may be more open to taking on the challenge of addressing these situations.
4. Help your child develop resilience in the face of challenging social situations
You can help your child counteract feelings of hopelessness when challenging social interactions loom. Brainstorming, for example, is a useful tool for recognizing a full range of possibilities that explain others' actions 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 responding to texts because they don't want to be friends anymore. Ask your child to write a list of at least ten other reasons why their friend might be avoiding them. Then, ask your child to identify several strategies for approaching the problem. These could include sometimes changing the situation or removing the offending agent (e.g., making a decision to find friends whom they can trust), taking action (e.g., telling their friend what is upsetting them), or changing their attitude (e.g., recognizing that five years from now, the friend's rejection will no longer sting). Encourage them to sort out the benefits and drawbacks of each strategy and to come up with a plan of action, as well as a backup plan. (See some of the articles about resilience listed below.)
5. Help them find social connections related to their interests.
Gifted and twice-exceptional children crave a place where they can belong and where it feels "safe" to be smart. They long for both intellectual and social connection with peers who understand their view of the world, who appreciate their perspective, and who just “get them.” Some gifted children may find a group of like-minded peers in school, particularly when gifted programs or ability grouping are available. More often, though, they must turn to extra-curricular activities to feel a sense of belonging. Help your child identify interests where they are likely to find similar peers. This could range from activities in the creative arts to STEM fields. Examples might include theater, visual arts, music, creative writing, film production, robotics, chess, coding, or a paleontology class at a local museum. Some activities may be low-cost or offer financial scholarships when needed.
6. Encourage social skills development
Some gifted kids lag behind their peers in their social development. They might be viewed as bossy and impatient, or socially clueless. It is painful when they experience rejection or even bullying. And while you might help them embrace their differentness, it is nevertheless a daunting and upsetting experience when they don't fit in with their peers. Once your child appreciates that it is normal and understandable for them to feel different, though, you can encourage them to both embrace their uniqueness and also learn tools for navigating social interactions. This requires an expectation that they can choose (or not) to adapt when they find themselves in challenging social situations. They don't have to be the life of the party or the most popular kid in their class. But they can find other children to play with or talk to - even if they don't feel entirely comfortable. Taking on social challenges builds resilience and will engender confidence. And when your encouragement is not enough, sometimes searching for additional support is helpful. Some schools and mental health professionals offer social skills groups that can boost their confidence and improve their ability to handle these tough challenges.
Additional strategies for helping your gifted or twice-exceptional child with social interactions:
** For more insights about parenting gifted children, please see my new book, The Gifted Parenting Journey. Available through the publisher and the usual bookseller sites, this book addresses a previously neglected topic in the literature: the needs and emotional life of parents of gifted children. For more information about this book, snippets from editorial reviews, and upcoming workshops and book events, please see this link.**