“Overthinking” is a word that must have been invented by a nongifted person.
Ask an elementary-school-aged gifted child what that term means, and you are likely to get a quizzical look: “How can you think too much? That doesn’t make any sense.” They genuinely mean that, too; because they can spend so much time playing in/with their minds, they don’t easily understand the concept of thinking ever being a bad thing. In all fairness, their brains are very interesting places, and there’s a lot going on in there that is worthy of their attention.
As adults, we understand the idea of overthinking differently, and in more practical terms: you are overthinking if you are making something more complicated than it really is; or if you are so wrapped up in thought that you are not doing the thing that has to be done. We adults have lots of common terms for specific kinds of overthinking, in fact: letting the perfect be the enemy of the good; fear of the blank page; maximizing/optimizing versus satisficing; and good old-fashioned perfectionism.
Let’s unpack a few common kinds of overthinking and how they show up in gifted children: being overly literal; never-ending research; when thinking as play can get in the way; and analysis paralysis.
Gifted students sometimes treat everything that comes out of someone’s mouth as though it is a text to be parsed. At times, they may act like especially insistent lawyers, interrupting or asking questions about technicalities. A child may bring up a detail that we can see is a distinction without a difference, but he seems to think is central to the issue. In a society in which legal cases can, in fact, hinge on something as technical as the presence or absence of an Oxford comma, it’s understandable that a child would think that demanding that sort of precision is culturally acceptable — and it is, but only inside a courtroom, or in the script of a police procedural. In “real life,” that kind of thing — correcting a teacher who says that 3% of the water on earth is fresh water (because it’s 2.7%) — not only earns him an eyeroll from the teacher, but also from his classmates, so the social cost of this behavior can be substantially higher than he’d expect. (This kind of experience can be very confusing for younger gifted students, who have come to understand that school is about “knowing the right answers” — a reasonable conclusion, given the high value attributed to the gold stars, stickers, and flurry of bright red “Great!”s and “A+!”s atop their papers —so why would sharing a more correct answer not be a valued behavior?)
It can be seriously frustrating to live with a child going through a particularly lawyerly phase. The solution to this sort of behavior requires an adult to walk the child through how to view the problem from a bigger-picture perspective — for example, the teacher discussing fresh water statistics can take him aside to explain that it doesn’t feel good to be interrupted and corrected in front of other people, in hopes of appealing to a sense of empathy to help him override this hyperprioritization of precision.
At home, a parent may be best served by spending a little time on the difference between “the spirit of the law” and “the letter of the law,” using examples that clearly illustrate why his hyper-literal interpretation of parental instructions or prohibitions is a problem. Using over-the-top examples might be the easiest way for him to understand what you mean: the entire series of Amelia Bedelia books is predicated on Amelia thinking over-literally about what she should be doing, and the comic results make the lesson more digestible. In the future, you can employ this “family shorthand” to make an end-run around an argument by saying something like, “Don’t ‘Amelia Bedelia’ me about this; you know what I mean when I ask you to clear out the recycling,” and he will know that are saying, “Don’t be overly literal here; I know that you know what my real intention is.”
Only 20,000 to go…
When a teacher assigns a 4th grader to do a report on penguins, the assignment probably requires only a very basic description of what they are, what they eat, and where they live. A teacher who requests that the report include pictures is likely to expect pictures of about 5 or so different species of penguins, along with descriptions of the different habitats of each. When a gifted child starts researching penguins, however, it’s not uncommon for sifting through Google images to become an entirely different monster with which to wrestle. If most children would stop at about 20-30 pictures of penguins, a gifted student might look at more than 100. Or 200. Or 1000…depending on their level of anxiety.
If you’re asking yourself, “It’s just a penguin — what is she so anxious about?” it’s because you’re an adult, with an adult perspective on what is important and what is not. You also have the benefit of an adult perspective on what constitutes an acceptable end-product for a project like this, which may be wildly different from what your child is envisioning. Some gifted students, when faced with a task like this, leverage their extraordinary imaginations to create in their brains an image of what they are looking for — a “Platonic ideal” of a penguin: a Penguin, if you will — and then embark upon a search to find that precise thing.
In an extreme example, the student might give up after 1000 penguins, deciding that an illustration of a Penguin just must not exist… but she may then decide to create her own Penguin image. If that new impulse results in an effort to teach herself Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop so she can draw the Penguin she envisions, that is when the curiosity and passionate pursuit of knowledge turns into something altogether different and far less functional. She is now essentially digging herself into a deeper and deeper mental hole in search of the Penguin, never getting closer to actually finishing the assignment. And because of the asynchrony of her social-emotional development, she may not easily give up this dogged pursuit despite adult guidance, instructions, and/or limit-setting. This situation is a quintessential example of “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
But this is so fun! Why do I have to stop?
It also might be the case that the child in question is not anxious about not doing the best possible job, but is instead enjoying herself too much to stop. After all, gifted children often like the “deep dive” into an area of interest, so falling in love with a new topic and pursuing it much longer than a typical child should really not be all that surprising.
Also, that kind of passion isn’t the sort of thing that is harmful, per se; it might be fine to let it run its course. Just as a gifted child may become “fluent” in dinosaurs or trains or the Civil War, for example, it’s possible that the penguin project could turn into the catalyst for a new passion — for penguins, or more broadly, for flightless birds, or for birds in general. Again, all of that is fine — so long as it’s not interfering with anything else. When the newly-discovered passion for penguins is a new and fun thing, it’s okay; when she cannot turn off the focus on the penguins when it’s time to actually complete and turn in the project, though, this single-mindedness can become problematic.
Analytical thinking is one of the defining characteristics of gifted children — they often don’t just prefer to understand the big picture before handling the details, but it may be the way they need to learn. Analytical thinking, in and of itself, is not a bad thing; to the contrary, it can be an excellent skill for problem-solving and can also allow their minds to make all sorts of insightful connections between topics and ideas.
Analytical thinking does get in the way, however, if an insistence on painstaking analysis means that the student gets stuck and cannot proceed. In the business world, this phenomenon is often referred to as “analysis paralysis,” and describes the sort of inaction that occurs after one is determined to continue analyzing all possible options to such a degree that no choice is ever made. The gifted brain can be particularly vulnerable to this type of overthinking, as it is often uniquely capable of thinking up a vast number of possible problems or pitfalls that need consideration before proceeding.
Disillusionment and harsh reality
In the end, all these kinds of overthinking amount to one thing: a gifted child needs to learn that the outside world imposes limits on intellectual curiosity, and those limits need to be respected and conformed with, or there are negative consequences. This idea, as you might imagine, does not sit well with children who are often characterized by a heightened sense of justice or fairness; to them, it seems simply unethical to accept or generate a shoddy or half-hearted answer if an Answer actually exists out there, and if they think themselves capable of finding it. After all, don’t we always tell them to do their best?
In this case, teaching your child that his job may be to produce the answer that someone else expects rather than the Answer is a difficult task. Some such situations are easier than others to explain; for instance, if you worry that he is overthinking answers to reading comprehension questions on standardized tests (an all-too-common occurrence in the gifted), you can explain that he needs to pick the answer that the test creators most probably intended. He needs to understand that a fill-in-the-bubble test really cannot listen to his appeals to logic or arguments as to why both choices B and C could “technically,” or “if you think about it” be the right answer. In this case, he needs to see that the end goal is not to figure out how all of the answers could be made to fit the question, but rather to choose which of the answers is most likely to answer the question.
Hoagies Gifted has a great, simple explanation of how parents can explain this distinction — in their example, it’s a way of helping a gifted child answer effectively on an IQ test, but the general principle of overthinking is what is at work here: “Sometimes you might know a bunch of different right answers to the question. That’s okay, but you should probably give the one most kids would think of first. You can give the more fun answers and explain yourself afterwards.” That the example and explanation is necessary at all, of course, is another instance of how overthinking is both characteristic of gifted children and another way in which they are qualitatively different from nongifted children.
‘Sometimes, the reason the child must stop the Penguin quest is utterly practical, but is a kind of reality check she may not have experienced yet: a deadline. At 9:00 p.m. on the night before the project is due, she simply must stop working on the project in order to have something to turn in at school in the morning. One administrator at a school for gifted students is fond of saying, “It’s not done, but it’s due,” an aphorism which both acknowledges the gifted student’s angst at stopping the research (but there is clearly so much more fascinating information out there!) and the reality that deadlines are one of the immovable objects in the universe with which she will need to learn to contend.¹ One way to comfort this distressed, stymied researcher is to assure her that there is plenty of time to learn more about penguins; there just isn’t time to include more information about penguins in this report…but when she gets home from school tomorrow, if she’d like to read more about penguins, she is welcome to do so.
Helping the Overthinking Gifted Child
The important message for your child is this: thinking is okay. Lots of thinking is okay. Lots of thinking about one thing for a good long time is okay. (There may be considerable relief at these statements.) But sometimes, the thinking has to stop for a bit so some doing can get done — after which…the thinking can go on and on and on.
¹Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (which is especially popular with gifted children, not coincidentally), is famous for saying, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” Gifted children weaponizing this quote should probably be reminded that Adams characterized deadlines in this way only after publishing two books that had become worldwide bestsellers, and that perhaps he or she is not quite there yet.
Jill Williford Wurman is Director of Research at The Grayson School. She notes that there may or may not have been significant overthinking in the creation of this post. However, in the end, perhaps this writeup of overthinking wasn’t done, it was simply due. And that’s okay, too.