ERIC Identifier: ED321494
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Author: Buescher, Thomas M. - Higham, Sharon
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children
Helping Adolescents Adjust to Giftedness. ERIC Digest
Young gifted people between the ages of 11 and 15 frequently report
a range of problems as a result of their abundant gifts: perfectionism,
competitiveness, unrealistic appraisal of their gifts, rejection from peers,
confusion due to mixed messages about their talents, and parental and social
pressures to achieve, as well as problems with unchallenging school programs
or increased expectations. Some encounter difficulties in finding and choosing
friends, a course of study, and, eventually, a career. The developmental
issues that all adolescents encounter exist also for gifted students, yet
they are further complicated by the special needs and characteristics of
being gifted. Once counselors and parents are aware of these obstacles,
they seem better able to understand and support gifted adolescents. Caring
adults can assist these young people to "own" and develop their talents
by understanding and responding to adjustment challenges and coping strategies.
CHALLENGES TO ADJUSTMENT
Several dynamics of giftedness continually interfere with adjustment
gains during adolescence. Buescher (1986) has found that, during the early
years of adolescence, gifted young people encounter several potent obstacles,
singly or in combination.
Ownership: Talented adolescents simultaneously "own" and yet question
the validity and reality of the abilities they possess. Some researchers
(Olszewski, Kulieke, & Willis, 1987) have identified patterns of disbelief,
doubt, and lack of self-esteem among older students and adults: the so-called
"impostor syndrome" described by many talented individuals. While talents
have been recognized in many cases at an early age, doubts about the accuracy
of identification and the objectivity of parents or favorite teachers linger
(Delisle & Galbraith, 1987; Galbraith, 1983). The power of peer pressure
toward conformity, coupled with any adolescent's wavering sense of being
predictable or intact, can lead to the denial of even the most outstanding
ability. The conflict that ensues, whether mild or acute, needs to be resolved
by gaining a more mature "ownership" and responsibility for the identified
A second basic pressure often experienced by gifted students is that,
since they have been given gifts in abundance, they feel they must give
of themselves in abundance. Often it is subtly implied that their abilities
belong to parents, teachers, and society.
Dissonance: By their own admission, talented adolescents often feel
like perfectionists. They have learned to set their standards high, to
expect to do more and be more than their abilities might allow. Childhood
desires to do demanding tasks PERFECTLY become compounded during adolescence.
It is not uncommon for talented adolescents to experience real dissonance
between what is actually done and how well they expected it to be accomplished.
Often the dissonance perceived by young people is far greater than most
parents or teachers realize.
Taking Risks: While risk taking has been used to characterize younger
gifted and talented children, it ironically decreases with age, so that
the bright adolescent is much less likely to take chances than others.
Why the shift in risk-taking behaviors? Gifted adolescents appear to be
more aware of the repercussions of certain activities, whether these are
positive or negative. They have learned to measure the decided advantages
and disadvantages of numerous opportunities and to weigh alternatives.
Yet their feigned agility at this too often leads them to reject even those
acceptable activities that carry some risk (e.g., advanced placement courses,
stiff competitions, public presentations), for which high success is less
predictable and lower standards of performance less acceptable in their
eyes. One other possible cause for less risk taking could be the need to
maintain control--to remain in spheres of influence where challenging relationships,
demanding coursework and teachers, or intense competition cannot enter
without absolute personal control.
Competing Expectations: Adolescents are vulnerable to criticism, suggestions,
and emotional appeals from others. Parents, friends, siblings, and teachers
are all eager to add their own expectations and observations to even the
brightest students' intentions and goals. Often, others' expectations for
talented young people compete with their own dreams and plans. Delisle
(1985), in particular, has pointed out that the "pull" of an adolescent's
own expectations must swim against the strong current posed by the "push"
of others' desires and demands. The dilemma is complicated by the numerous
options within the reach of a highly talented student: The greater the
talent, the greater the expectations and outside interference.
Gifted adolescents consistently report dramatic episodes of being pushed
to the point of doubt and despair by insensitive teachers, peers, and even
parents. Teachers in secondary schools, in particular, have tried to disprove
the talents of individual students, saying, in effect, "Prove to me you
are as gifted as you think you are." Coping with the vagaries of adolescence
while also proving oneself again and again in the classroom or peer group
significantly drains energy allocated for the normal tasks of adjustment
and leads to frequent frustration and isolation.
Impatience: Like most other adolescents, gifted students can be impatient
in many ways: eager to find solutions for difficult questions, anxious
to develop satisfying friendships, and prone to selecting difficult but
immediate alternatives for complex decisions. The predisposition for impulsive
decision making, coupled with exceptional talent, can make young adolescents
particularly intolerant of ambiguous, unresolved situations. Their impatience
with a lack of clear-cut answers, options, or decisions drives them to
seek answers where none readily exist, relying on an informing, though
immature, sense of wisdom. The anger and disappointment when hasty resolutions
fail can be difficult to surmount, particularly when less capable peers
gloat about these failures.
Premature Identity: It appears that the weight of competing expectations,
low tolerance for ambiguity, and the pressure of multiple potentials each
feed very early attempts to achieve an adultlike identity, a stage normally
achieved after the age of 21. This can create a serious problem for talented
adolescents. They seem to reach out prematurely for career choices that
will short-cut the normal process of identity crisis and resolution.
How can talented adolescents cope with the myriad obstacles to developing
their talents? A study of young adolescents who participated in a talent
search program Buescher & Higham (1985) suggested various strategies.
Table 1 depicts the strategies suggested by the adolescents, arranged according
to their assessment of acceptablity for use.
Table 1. Coping Strategies Suggested by Adolescents (In Order by Weighted
Ranking; 0 = Least Acceptable to Students; 10 = Most Acceptable):
(0) Pretend not to know as much as you do.
(1) Act like a "brain" so peers leave you alone.
(2) Adjust language and behavior to disguise true abilities from your
(3) Avoid programs designed for gifted/talented students.
(4) Be more active in community groups where age is no object.
(5) Develop/excel in talent areas outside school setting.
(6) Achieve in areas at school outside academics.
(7) Build more relationships with adults.
(8) Select programs and classes designed for gifted/talented students.
(9) Make friends with other students with exceptional talents.
(10) Accept and use abilities to help peers do better in classes.
The strategies were influenced by such factors as age, sex, and participation
in programs for gifted students. For example, over the course of 4 years
(ages 11 to 15), "using one's talent to help others" moved from second
place to first, by way of third. "Achieving in school in areas outside
academics" appeared to rise in popularity until the age of 14 but then
dropped to third place. Students participating in special programs for
the gifted were less likely, as they grew older, to mask their true abilities.
Other studies have indicated that gifted females appear to be somewhat
vulnerable to the pull of cultural expectations that drive them toward
seeking peer acceptance rather than leadership and the full development
of their abilities (Olszewski-Kubilius & Kulieke, 1989).
Buescher, T. M. (1985). A framework for understanding the social and
emotional development of gifted and talented adolescents. ROEPER REVIEW,
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Talent: Issues Affecting Counseling and Adjustment. Paper presented at
the 63rd annual meeting of the American Orthopsychiatric Association, Chicago.
Buescher, T., & Higham, S. (1985). Young Adolescent Survey: Coping
Skills among the Gifted/Talented. Unpublished instrument. Evanston, IL:
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Delisle, J. (1985). Counseling gifted persons: A lifelong concern. ROEPER
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Delisle, J., & Galbraith, J. (1987). THE GIFTED KIDS SURVIVAL GUIDE,
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(Eds.), Patterns of Influence on Gifted Learners: the Home, the Self, and
the School (pp. 125-145). New York: Teachers College Press.
Buescher, T., Olszewski, P., & Higham, S. (1987, April). Influences
on Strategies Gifted Adolescents Use To Cope with Their Own Recognized
Talent. Paper presented at the 1987 biennial meeting of the Society for
Research in Child Development, Baltimore.
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Erikson, E. (1968). Identity, Youth, and Crisis. New York: Norton.
Higham, S., & Buescher, T. (1987). What young gifted adolescents
understand about feeling different. In T. Buescher (Ed.), Understanding
Gifted and Talented Adolescents (pp. 26-30). Evanston, IL: Center for Talent
Development, Northwestern University. ------
The material in this digest was adapted by permission of the publisher
from Buescher, T. (1989). A developmental study of adjustment among gifted
adolescents. In J. VanTassel-Baska & P. Olszewski-Kubilius (Eds.),
PATTERNS OF INFLUENCE ON GIFTED LEARNERS: THE HOME, THE SELF, AND THE SCHOOL
(pp. 102-124). New York: Teachers College Press. c1989 by Teachers College,
Columbia University. All rights reserved.