Although it may seem that gifted students are lucky to have been bestowed with intellect and talent, such a classification can come with problems of its own. In fact, gifted students can experience high levels of stress to excel at everything they do.
Because of their gifts, gifted students also tend to be more perceptive than other children when it comes to picking up on environmental cues, so they may be more sensitive to judgments from others (both real and perceived), as well as sometimes feel overloaded and overwhelmed by information. A lifetime of high expectations can lead gifted students to be extremely hard on themselves as they strive for increasingly higher standards and packed schedules.
Gifted students are usually placed in school environments that are filled with pressure. Although students often need these accelerated tracks to keep them from getting bored in school, the demands of both the coursework and the environment of other gifted students can cause a great deal of stress. Children may work so hard to keep up (and stay ahead) that they begin to burn out from stress—which can be a dangerous state, both physically and mentally. Stress can create a vicious cycle, as it is more difficult to concentrate and pay attention when stressed, so students may experience low performance, leading them to be even harder on themselves. Be on the lookout for significant changes in behavior that indicate burnout and stress, such as:
- Physical symptoms that are often related to stress, such as stomachaches, backaches, and headaches. Other physical symptoms of stress and burnout can include frequent colds and other minor illnesses, and nervous behaviors, such as tics, stuttering, pulling out hair, or skin-picking.
- Negativity or resentment towards school in a child who used to be generally happy or excited about learning.
- Difficulty sleeping, fatigue, or low energy. (Please note that changes in sleeping patterns are a normal part of adolescence, as teenagers tend to prefer to stay up later and sleep later, so tiredness is often a normal part of the life of an adolescent who has a tendency to stay up very late, and then has to be at school very early in the morning.) Concern should arise when children are exhibiting sleeping difficulties without other explanations, or are consistently losing sleep due to worry about excelling in school.
- Extreme irritability, moodiness, insecurity, inability to make decisions, and/or overreaction in the face of events that the child was previously able to handle.
- Acting out through destructive or aggressive behaviors
- Self-medication with alcohol or drugs.
Some parents may read the list above and feel that all of the points describe behaviors of the typical adolescent. The key in recognizing stress and burnout is to notice major changes in behavior that persist for more than a few weeks, and that seem to be more extreme than other children of the same age.
Parents can help students who are experiencing stress and burnout by trying some of the following ideas:
- Put the focus back on effort, rather than innate talent. Gifted children are often very used to excelling (and therefore garnering a lot of praise) without having to put in a lot of work. When they are faced with tasks that require a lot of time in order to succeed, gifted children may feel that they have hit the limits of their ability, and experience stress as a result. Help them be realistic in terms of their expectations for the relationship between time invested and results.
- Sometimes gifted children who are grouped together can engage in intense competition. Do not get involved in this competition by comparing your child to others. Make sure that your child knows that you appreciate his uniqueness by supporting the path that he wants to take, even if it is not the most prestigious one.
- Consider limiting the number of accelerated classes and/or extracurricular activities that your student can be involved in. Help students find activities outside of school where the focus is on enjoyment, not for the purpose of eventually filling out a college application. Make sure children have outlets for self-expression in an area that they enjoy, through activities such as writing, art, music or physical activity. Try to provide opportunities for unstructured time engaged in such activities; otherwise, lessons or clubs may feel like one more source of pressure.
- Make sure that gifted students know that even if they feel burned out or disillusioned about school, they still need to be polite to teachers. Many gifted students are taught that they are as smart (or smarter) than adults, and therefore have the right to question and/or mistreat those that they feel are being unfair or giving them “busy work.” Talk to children about making choices on what assignments to work on when prioritizing, but also help them understand that they have to accept the consequences of their choices. Teach them how to stand up for themselves and question by being assertive without being rude or disrespectful.
- Think about whether your child is in an environment that suits his needs, temperament, and learning style. Sometimes the best way to deal with stress is to remove oneself from an environment that is unhealthy and not going to change. Your child may need to switch to a school or learning track that is a better fit. Talk to your child about what might make school a better experience, and if he is interested in making a change. Ask about his favorite and least favorite teachers, and what their classrooms and assignments are like, to help gauge what would be a best fit.