Grouping the brightest kids together at school makes sense—classwork should always be challenging, and programs for gifted children often offer them harder assignments to keep them on their toes. However, if grouping removes them from contact with their “normal” peers, that distance may lead to alienation, resentment and bullying. But it’s not just the gifted children at the receiving end of the social wrath. Our 2005 national survey of gifted children has dispelled this bullying myth. While 46 percent of gifted youth reported being bullied in middle school, 16 percent of them reported being the bully (1, 2). Victimization of gifted students increased from a surprising 27 percent in kindergarten to 46 percent in grade 6, the peak year.
The 1999 shootings at Columbine High School brought national attention to the problem of bullying and exceptional students, since the school shooters had been identified as gifted. In our study of gifted students, 29 percent reported that they’d had violent thoughts in grade 8—a steady increase from 5 percent in kindergarten. Because they were responding to a yes/no question, the kinds or directions of thoughts aren’t known, although, during interviews, two bully targets said, “I thought of doing bad things to them” and “It just feels like anger inside of me that I want to release.”
Bullying Behavior K-8
We examined 13 specific kinds of bullying behavior gifted kids experience or inflicted on others, ranging from teasing and knocking books out of hands, to pushing, threats, and “beating up.” “Mean girl” bullying—exclusion, rumor spreading and harassment—had not yet appeared in the media. The exclusion of these types of social bullying in the research, along with the even more recent concept of cyberbullying, may have skewed the results. Nevertheless, 67 percent of the gifted participants had been a bully target sometime during K-8, and 25 percent of sixth-grade male victims and 24 percent of fifth-grade female victims had been bullied repeatedly.
Sticks and stones hurt, but so do hateful words. In our research, only low percentages of gifted children had been recipients of physical abuse, but many responded sensitively to verbal bullying, saying they felt “very helpless,” “degraded,” “scared,” “like something’s wrong with [me],” and that the bullying “changed me profoundly.” Name-calling was most commonly related to appearance (such as “ugly” or “shrimp”), followed by mental capability (for example, “dork” or “idiot”), then expletives, sexuality and sexual orientation (like “slut” or “fag”), and personality (for example, “crybaby”; “jerk”; “freak”; “wacko” or “loser”).
Why Gifted Kids are Targeted
“The gifted are different, and that’s one of the main reasons—just differences.”
Being labeled “different” increases the chance that a gifted kid will be bullied—especially if the perpetrator assumes the “gifted” status means an attitude of self-importance. Based on the 2005 survey of 432 gifted students and interviews of 55:
- Victims identified as “gifted” think that what causes bullying is beyond their control—yet they may feel compelled to take responsibility for fixing it themselves, instead of asking for help.
- Just one experience with non-physical bullying can be traumatic, with long-lasting impact.
- Despite the “gifted” label, being bullied can contribute to self-doubt and low self-esteem. “I just felt so bad. My mind was telling me, ‘You’re worthless.’”
- Coping strategies improve with age.
- When children take action, have support, make changes, or the bullying somehow stops (by family relocation, for example), they have higher self-esteem.
- Gifted bullies are able to change their behavior.
- Intelligence helps some gifted kids cope with victimization—they tend to try to “make sense” of the bullying behavior.
- Gifted victims try to avoid “mistakes” and to “be better” in order to avoid being bullied.
- “Not being known” puts kids at risk. When better acquainted, bullies and bullied sometimes can become friends.
How You Can Help
You can make a positive impact and stop the bullying of—and by—gifted children. Here’s how:
- Watchful eyes. Request that adult school personnel closely monitor areas or situations where bullying commonly takes place, such as classrooms, hallways, bus lines, restrooms, and cafeterias, especially for brief behaviors that often are “under the radar.”
- Classroom social activities. Suggest classroom activities that help gifted youth and adolescents get to know both each other and their “average” peers, including students interviewing each other and non-competitive team-based activities.
- Be a confidant. Respond and take any warning signs or child reports of bullying seriously. Several students in the research study had told a teacher, but were “called a tattletale” or reported that the adult “didn’t do anything.” Other researchers have found that adults don’t typically intervene in classroom conflict or playground disputes. As a result, few students tell parents and teachers about bullying, viewing them as indifferent or ineffective.
- Inquisition. Ask your child about social aggression (“If I just watched for a day, what would I see?”), and be aware that your kid might be a victim, bully, bully-victim, or a traumatized bystander. Both bullies and victims warrant concern, since perpetrators have been associated with later delinquency and workplace bullying, and “bully-victims” are especially at risk for poor mental health down the road.
- Take a stand. Support from parents and family are important for targets of bullying so it’s crucial you respond to bullying incidents. You can document acts of aggression, contact school administration, talk to other parents, and advocate for stronger and more effective school policies about bullying.
If you suspect your gifted child or teen is involved in bullying—as either victim or perpetrator—the time to act is now. Early intervention, combined with love and support, can lessen the damaging effects of bullying and help your child grow up happy, confident and secure.
This article is based on the following research reports:
- Peterson, J. S., & Ray, K. E. (2006a). Bullying among the gifted: The subjective experience. Gifted Child Quarterly, 50, 252-269.
- Peterson, J. S., & Ray, K. E. (2006b). Bullying and the gifted: Victims, perpetrators, prevalence, and effects. Gifted Child Quarterly, 50, 148-168.
- Athanasiades, C., & Deliyanni-Kouimtzis, V. (2010). The experience of bullying among secondary school students. Psychology in the Schools, 47, 328-341.
- Brendtro, L. K. (2001). Worse than sticks and stones: Lesson from research on ridicule. Reclaiming Children & Youth, 10(1), 47-49.
- Craig, W. M., Pepler, D. J., & Atlas, R. (2000). Observations of bullying in the playground and in the classroom. School Psychology International, 21, 22-36.
- Estell, D. B., Farmer, T. W., & Irvin, M. J. (2009). Students with Exceptionalities and the Peer Group Context of Bullying and Victimization in Late Elementary School. Journal of Child and Family Studies,18, 136-150.
- Juvonen, J., & Gross, E. F. (2008). Extending the school grounds? Bullying experiences in cyberspace. Journal of School Health, 78, 496-505.
- Kaltiala-Heino, R., Rimpela, M., Marttunen, M., Rimpela, A., & Rantanen, P. (1999). Bullying, depression, and suicidal ideation in Finnish adolescents: School survey. British Medical Journal, 319, 348–351.
- Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Author Jean Peterson, Ph.D., professor and counselor educator at Purdue University, has focused her clinical work and research on the social and emotional development of high-ability youth. Among her nearly 100 publications, including 8 books, are Gifted at Risk: Poetic Profiles, The Essential Guide to Talking with Gifted Teens, and Talk with Teens About What Matters to Them. Her first career was in K-12 education, as a classroom and gifted-education teacher.