Throughout a lifetime of internal and external conflicts, we undergo a complex process of self-discovery that creates our idea of who we are: our self-concept. Our school counselor, Josh Clemmons, discusses the internal and external factors that can affect your gifted child.
Over the course of human history, philosophers and psychologists alike have sought to find the answer to what makes us who we are. Genetics have taught us much about how traits are inherited and potentials are inborn, but research in the field of positive psychology has also shown us that the full actualization of the “self” is not so simple. Throughout our lives, we wrestle with decisions about our careers, relationships, morals, and values: such conflicts are an essential and inescapable aspect of personal growth. In taking responsibility for solving these critical problems, we answer the question of who we are and define ourselves through our decisions.
The formation of one’s own identity is a developmental milestone that all humans have to achieve in their life in order to reach their full potential, and the gifted are no exception. However, growing up gifted in a neurotypical society can be challenging; there are unique complications—both internal and external—that can make the evolution of the gifted self more difficult. Our students are in various stages of soul-searching, and it is important to understand why it takes a special kind of courage for the gifted to be their most authentic selves.
External factors and the formation of self-concept
For the neurotypical and gifted alike, our personalities and values are influenced by our experiences—relationships, traumas, conflicts, achievements—which affect how we relate to the world around us, our parents, our peers, our romantic partners, and of course, ourselves. For children, the majority of experiences that shape self-concept occur within the social domain of school. For every action there is a reaction, and this constant feedback loop from our social surroundings teaches us what behaviors are acceptable, encouraged, or discouraged. While such a system is effective in creating a cohesive social group through the implicit teaching of rules, this very same system can leave gifted children feeling isolated and despondent.
For gifted students left without an authentic peer group, self-development can be significantly hindered. As many of our students can attest, it can be very difficult to relate to same-age peers in neurotypical classroom. Gifted children in such environments can receive the message that being different is wrong or even aberrant, simply because they are not like those around them. They may find it difficult to find friends their age that think the way that they do, understand their humor, or share their interests. Through implicit social feedback, they may begin to feel that something is “wrong” with them, and they are at risk of internalizing negative feedback. Consistent negative social feedback can create self-doubt and lack of trust in one’s own self-perception, and thus hamstring personal development. Overcoming such perceptions is essential to the development of a healthy and authentic self-concept.
Regardless of environment, internal factors are at play
For example, self-exploration can be a harrowing experience. The gifted psyche creates a rich, multifaceted, and intense inner world. The gifted mind is fertile ground for powerful emotions, complex ideas, and a wild imagination. Of course, not all of the products of a gifted mind will be positive or pleasant. Every experience is burned deep into the gifted psyche, and even minor traumas can plant seeds of negativity. Ideas of the self can be riddled with shadows of anxiety and self-doubt. Gifted children possess keen powers of perception, and can be upset, bewildered, or even frightened when they turn this perception inward. The inherent emotional sensitivity central to the gifted experience compounds this, and it becomes clear that living as one’s most authentic gifted self takes a great deal of courage.
In the face of such complications, the healing power of self-acceptance cannot be emphasized enough. We must teach gifted young people to accept their own imperfections and eccentricities so they can find the freedom to explore themselves with a sense of security and self-assurance. This can be accomplished by teaching gifted students about giftedness, itself; while many caution that children should not be explicitly told that they are smart, gifted children already know they are different, and sharing with them what we know about the gifted mind normalizes and validates their experience and also fosters self-compassion. Placing gifted students with similar peers is also tremendously beneficial, as we have seen here at Grayson! It is my mission as a counselor to foster healthy self-concepts among our students, and to facilitate compassionate self-exploration.
Tips for parents to help support their gifted children:
Allow your child to explore new self-concepts.
During adolescence, it is normal for young people to try out different identities. This can manifest in several ways: new ways of dressing, new cliques, new music, even new sexualities or gender identities. Remember: they develop asynchronously, so they may surprise you if this shows up earlier than you expected!
Facilitate your child’s exploration of unconventional thinkers.
Popular role models of success such as tech moguls, professional athletes, and eminent scientists may not always resonate with every gifted child, especially those who are more imaginative and unconventional. Consider introducing your child to other types of role models, such as musicians, writers, or philosophers. Many such gifted individuals throughout history were not accepted by their contemporaries, which can be a powerful message of affirmation for young gifted people. Consider figures such as Thoreau, da Vinci, Newton, or even Nietzsche!
Identify positive self-affirmations.
It’s important for gifted children to identify and internalize positive attributes of themselves, and that they carry them with them as a source of confidence and strength. It can be easy for a perfectionist to forget the good things about themselves as they strive to “fix” perceived shortcomings. Making a practice of self-affirmations helps maintain a balanced and healthy self-concept.
Validate the holistic gifted experience.
Remember that giftedness is not just an intellectual phenomenon! Emotional intensity is a central part of the gifted experience, and it is critical that gifted children receive adequate support and understanding as they develop. Educate yourself on the emotional and social needs of your gifted child, and advocate for them when necessary.