Gifted Kids Aren’t Going to “Be Fine”


Hearing about Robin Williams and his apparent suicide yesterday, I find that I feel like I’ve lost a friend. Or at least an acquaintance. Through his many movie roles, interviews and such, he’s been part of my memories for a very long time. And beyond his roles, he just struck me as a really decent human being.

I won’t pretend that I knew him, though. I’m not that silly. I didn’t, obviously. But there are things about him that resonate with me and how I feel sometimes.

So in one way, it didn’t entirely surprise me to hear that he may have died as a result of suicide. And that makes me so incredibly sad. Highly gifted and creative people feel deeply. It’s impossible to be so creative and “out of the box” in this world without feeling lost at times. It’s a constant battle to just live and be yourself. It’s exhausting. And I can relate to wanting to give up or feeling like things will never get better.

And, for some reason, the myth persists that gifted kids will “be fine” – they don’t need extra support or programs in schools (or in life). Really? Pay attention. Lives are at stake – literally. The list of creative geniuses taking their own lives or self-medicating their pain away through drugs and addictions keeps growing.

The research is there. The impact is lifelong. And it’s a different way of thinking and feeling and seeing the world.

And, to be clear, I’m not just talking about students who get straight A’s in school or who always know the answers. Not necessarily the teacher’s pets.

The most vulnerable kids are the ones who are incredibly smart and sensitive and feel deeply, but DON’T show up as the brightest kids in class. These kids are so smart, they know they’re not performing to their potential, that they’re not like the other kids around them, and they usually don’t know why. The frustration created by this discrepancy within themselves is incredibly damaging – leading to anxiety, depression, behaviour issues, etc…

Too often, even the most successful, brightest and most creative people go through life afraid on the inside, hiding the fact that they’re constantly questioning themselves. Someone once explained it to me as “imposter syndrome” – being afraid that you’re not nearly as great as everyone thinks you are, and someday, they’re going to find out!

Giftedness as asynchronous development resonates with me – it’s not about performance or achievement, it’s about an internal experience of the world that doesn’t fit within the norm or within expectations. And, since it doesn’t fit, the continuous message is “what’s wrong with you??”

Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration is also critical for understanding gifted and highly sensitive/creative kids. His work showed that certain kinds of inner conflict – those that we might call existential crises (questioning your world, your place in it, the way things work, who you are, etc…) – are necessary for development. That anxiety and depression need to be seen (in these cases) as signs of growth instead of as a “problem” needing to be “fixed.”

And I shared a lot of what I’ve learned so far (about myself and my children) in a post here, along with links to several resources and books to read more:

Please, if you work with or are raising children, take time to learn about what “gifted” actually means. So that you can recognize these vulnerable kids, support them, see them for who they are. And, in turn, reflect back to them the wonders and challenges of their non-neuro-typical brains.

Lives depend on us.

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36 Responses to Gifted Kids Aren’t Going to “Be Fine”

  1. Curt Hal says:

    While much of this reflects the literature from the field of gifted, it may leave the impression that the gifted, in general, are particularly vulnerable. While this can be true, it fails to include the resilience and problem solving abilities of the gifted. A picture that does not include this, and other balancing factors, is not a complete picture. Further research in this regard should be pursued prior to forming generalizations that may misrepresent and, therefore, foster misconceptions about this already misunderstood segment of the population.

    • heidi says:

      Hi Curt,
      Thanks – you’re right, that’s an important point.
      Human beings, in general, have incredible resilience and there are always those that thrive in spite of any adverse circumstances, vulnerabilities, etc…

      But I have to say that, as a group, those who are highly sensitive, creative and/or gifted ARE particularly vulnerable. The more highly gifted a person is, the greater the likelihood of dysfunction and struggle.

      That’s why there needs to be understanding of the “profile” and the possible strengths/weaknesses.

      In the link I provided to my reflections and understandings, I write about the differences and possibilities. As well as about the need to use a label like “gifted” as nothing more than a scaffolded starting point. I make the point there that “Each child is unique and we still need to make the effort to get to know them as individuals, even when they come “pre-packaged” with a label” – you can read more here:

      My point in this post, however, is that too often, school districts have cut gifted screening, identification and programs due to budget difficulties or in order to spend that money in more “urgent” areas of the system – with the false believe that they’re smart, they’ll “be fine.” And I believe, the research supports and many other parents of gifted students will tell you: that’s a dangerous assumption. Gifted students are a vulnerable group and twice exceptional students, in particular, are some of the most under-served students in our system (in my Province anyway, and from what I read, in many parts of North America). And that needs to change – starting with people learning more about it.

    • Mickey says:

      No, she nailed it. I have only personal data points for reference but the above hypothesis has been tested and proven in this 47 year single sample study. Compensation and balance are not counter points, they are tools of survival. When they grow wearisome, the slide is steep and deep.
      Above average ability or intellect is not quite the blessing it is cracked up to be.
      Asking questions as a child which brought answers that I was ill prepared to “balance” almost killed me at 11. I am just now growing into myself.

      The supposition in this piece resonates both deep and wide within me. Thank you

    • Princess Mom says:

      Gifted children are more at risk for not finishing high school (the last report I read said that as many as 1/3 of dropouts are gifted), more likely to struggle with depression, at an increased risk of suicide and even more likely to be incarcerated than the general population. Gifted people in general are more likely to use alcohol, drugs and to engage in other risky behaviors, whether or not they are officially “geniuses,” or even particularly creative.

      Many teachers have the idea that “if the child is truly gifted,” they will find ways to keep themselves from losing their minds in an ill-suited classroom. While this is a neat way for teachers to absolve themselves from doing a single thing to address the gifted child’s unique learning needs, it also teaches the child that their needs don’t matter and, if they fail or struggle, it’s their own fault for pretending to be something they are not. To suggest that these kids somehow have unique resilience or education-problem-solving abilities not seen in the general population smacks of similar victim-blaming. Gifted children have as much right to an appropriate education as every other child does.

  2. Stacy Hill says:

    I am in total agreement. I am a gifted yet grossly underachieving person. I daily wrestle with depression. If it wasn’t for a serotonin elevating medication I probably would have already passed to the other side. Even though I take medication I still struggle.

    • heidi says:

      Hi Stacy,
      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your personal experience!
      I struggle too – lots of days! I wrote about it here – for me the hardest part has been the shame. Feeling like there’s something wrong with me. That voice in my head is very good at beating up on me. I’m learning to be more patient with myself and to just give myself a break. But some days are better than others, that’s for sure!
      I hope you find the joy and wonder that can keep you going! It’s definitely a struggle. I’ve learned to trust that the “wave” will pass and I can just surf it until it pushes me up on the beach, where I can curl up and rest before I strike out again.
      Take care!

  3. I sent your article out via Twitter after it was posted on a Facebook page. Thanks for addressing this age-old myth about gifted kids being “fine.” I appreciate your new voice! Also, feel free to contact me!

    • heidi says:

      Thanks for reading and sharing, Terry!
      I’m enjoying your website – I’ve really appreciated James Webb’s books and articles! I remember the first time I read about his book “Searching for Meaning” – I literally breathed a sigh of relief! It’s not just me…

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  5. Kimi says:

    We REALLY need to come up with a different term than “gifted”. It can be a burden to the bearer, a hindrance to an adequate education; it doesn’t give a direction to address the person’s specific needs. Just like there are varieties of learning disabilities–dyslexia is handled differently than ADD and Auditory Processing Disorder–“giftedness” comes packaged in different sizes and manifests differently. And when it’s paired with ADD or dyslexia or dysgraphia it’s like getting a bunch of awesome toys for Christmas, but no batteries to run them.

    • heidi says:

      Hi Kimi,
      I’ve often thought about all the connotations (positive and negative) associated with the word “gifted.” The thing I keep running into, though, is what would we say instead? And all the research/programs/documentation etc… all use the term.

      Perhaps we need to educate everyone about what gifted means. If only we could use the label as a starting point for further “getting to know” – not as an end point. (BTW check out Dabrowski’s work re: overexcitabilities – it’s one of the best descriptions of the “facets” of giftedness I’ve found.)

      And I know what you mean about twice exceptional learners – my middle child is both gifted and learning disabled. Too often, it seems he “fits” in neither category. So, the good news is he’s learning to be 100% himself. He’s an inventor, a builder, a maker, a Minecraft expert, and a really neat young man!

      I think we just need to learn to be our own way, without apologies. And surround ourselves with people who “get” us.
      After all, as Dr Seuss says: those that mind don’t matter, and those that matter don’t mind!

      It’s a journey…

    • Our parenting group uses the term “High Ability Learners.” It’s a mouthful, but we feel it accurately depicts the situation we find ourselves in – whether they are high ability learners in the fine arts, the sciences, sports, or whatever. 🙂

  6. Jennifer Larrabee says:

    Hi Heidi,
    I found you because SENG posted your post on Robin Williams. I agree so much with your insight. I’d love to follow your blog. Is the only way to sign up by clicking on Networked Blogs?

    • heidi says:

      Hi Jennifer,
      Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
      I was just working on my RSS feed options, which didn’t seem to be working for some reason… Darned technology! 🙂
      You should now see an ability to sign up for RSS feed on either all posts, or on gifted learners posts specifically. There’s also an option to sign up for daily emails (only when there’s new content).
      Hope that helps!

  7. Stacey Wiberg says:

    Thanks for your article – so sad that in my past 12 years teaching in B.C. (approximately 1500 students) I have not had one student designated ‘gifted’ in my classroom. I know they are there, I do the best for them that I can, I try to challenge & motivate, but under our current provincial government, the funding is simply not there to give them the educational enrichment they deserve. Before 2002, I would see 1 or 2 per year actually receive this type of support, and it was an amazing experience to see them grow. Thanks again for your words. Thanks also to all the B.C. teachers ‘holding the line’ for these students & all others – each of whom has their own special gifts – in their classrooms.

    • heidi says:

      Hi Stacey,
      Yup, the stats don’t lie! After the BC gov’t removed targeted funding for gifted students, we went from approx 22k identified gifted in the Province, to about 7k a few years later. Those other kids didn’t disappear. Districts just stopped identifying and providing services! As budgets got tight and something had to be cut in order to make ends meet, the myth the “gifted kids will be fine” was used to justify the cuts.

      My heart aches for all the kids who struggle and feel like something is wrong with them. For all the anxiety and depression and behaviour problems. For all the lives lost – figuratively and literally.

      BC teachers deserve more support, to help meet the needs of all kids in their classrooms! As I’ve often said, we too often have excellence IN SPITE of the system – we need excellence SUPPORTED BY the system!!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
      Take care!

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  9. Rosemarie says:

    This is a thoughtful and helpful article. I am so glad when I see this topic spoken about, so many are still in denial and won’t share their experiences. Even in the gifted community I sometimes see this topic treated as taboo. Those of us living with it every day know what you are talking about and share in this concern. Thank you so much!

    • heidi says:

      Hi Rosemarie,
      Thanks so much for reading and leaving a comment!
      I think there are so many myths about the gifted – we need more understanding of what it actually means!
      Too often, people are offended by the term (or embarrassed to use it) because there is a perceived arrogance or privilege attached. Like “oh you think you’re SOOOOO special…” When it reality, it is both a gift AND a challenge!
      Let’s keep talking about it!!

  10. Orion says:

    “That anxiety and depression need to be seen (in these cases) as signs of growth instead of as a “problem” needing to be “fixed.””

    Can’t it be both? A sign is not the same as a component, or even as cause. I’m more inclined to believe that clarity of vision gives rise to depression that that depression fosters the clarity of visions.

    Many gifted folk are anxious or depressed. In my own case, I wasn’t able to start getting better until I accepted that depression itself was one of those things in life that had no meaning. The greatest trick depression plays is to make itself appear profound. I had to recognize my gifts, such as they are, as wholly distinct from my ailments, and discard one to preserve the other.

    • heidi says:

      Hi Orion,
      Yes, that’s a really good point – it definitely can be both. I just wrote a new post (Stuck) reflecting more on the thing I see missing.

      Sometimes, I’ve felt like both therapy and expectations were that I should “get over it” and get back to “normal.” But I didn’t want to go back to that normal – I needed help creating or understanding my NEW normal. So, I really had to get THROUGH the struggle – it was a necessary part of my development.

      That’s the thing I was trying to articulate – not as well as I should have!

      Thanks so much for picking up on that and pointing it out.
      I appreciate the opportunity to grow and learn!

  11. Angela says:

    I do not define myself as gifted. I was in all of the gifted classes. I was not always a straight A student. Classes that didn’t require much effort, like Science, History, English, I aced easily. Math required me to actually work and I usually resisted that. I lean far more to the creative. I love to problem solve. I am a talented artist in multiple media. I am a musician. I just can’t relate well with the way most people think. It is the source of my depression. I am a very loving and have huge amounts of empathy for life. I just find the world around me so selfish and cruel. People close to me become annoyed with my lack of ability to be motivated at times. I can’t make them understand that I live inside my head. I over think every aspect of my life. I feel like a freak at times. I always analyze all aspects of a situation, run numerous scenarios, then formulate the best possible outcome. My mind feels like it is a runaway freight train. My creativity is born of these faster than light thoughts. When I experience emotion, I feel with such overwhelming intensity. Passion like a scorching fire, love so intense my heart may burst, sadness so deep, no amount of rope can reach to the bottom of my pit. The ones I love the most understand me the least. I have felt like Robin Williams must have felt that night many times. Why can’t I just get my self together and be more productive and less of a procrastinator? Then people wouldn’t get so upset with me. I guess in the end I fear failure more than I fear losing those closest to me.

    • heidi says:

      Hi Angela,
      Thanks so much for sharing your comment!
      Oh I can relate to so much of what you’re saying!! The overthinking, the problem solving, the overwhelm.

      For a long time, I tried not to feel. Of course, that didn’t work so well, in the end. So now I’m learning to embrace the intensity, but trying to surf the wave, instead of diving in and thrashing around all the time. It’s a work in progress! 🙂

      Probably the thing that helped me the most was doing therapy that taught me to tune into my body, to breathe, to let my physical reactions be my signals to stop thinking. I saw this person:

      Not sure if that makes sense, but meditation (sometimes listening to music, so I can focus on the notes instead of my chaotic thoughts) has been huge too.

      It comes down to knowing/accepting yourself, I’d say. Weaknesses/failures and strengths/gifts alike. It’s hard to ALWAYS be different, but it’s also pretty amazing.

      I hope it helps, even just a little, to know you’re not the only one!
      Take care!

  12. Beth says:

    Imposter syndrome… whole life I’ve tried to hide it when I was good at something. I can’t believe it’s taken this long for a phrase to make such sense. A friend told me a few months ago that I was one of the smartest people she’d ever known. It was embarrassing because I was barely passing a college class, despite being passionate about the subject, it wasn’t translating into a decent grade. I have trouble making friends because I want someone to push me, challenge me, disagree with me and teach me new things. I feel intellectually bored but also like an arrogant prick for admitting it.

    • heidi says:

      Hi Beth,
      I felt the same way when someone said it – I was at a conference, feeling horribly intimidated by all these incredibly smart people around me, when one of them brought it up. I could’ve cried in that moment!

      Did you know the more highly gifted you are, the more likely you are to have difficulty? Particularly finding friends and your “tribe.” Makes sense, really – if you’re a 1 in a million kind of person, then most of the people you meet won’t “get” you. It’s not about being arrogant or better, it’s just reality that you’re not like everyone else. Watch for and hang on to the people you connect with – they’re so precious, and all you really need is one or two…

      I found two books really helped me understand myself better – The Gifted Adult by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen, and The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller. Worth reading, I’d recommend.

      And school isn’t always the place where non-neurotypical thinkers are going to thrive – good grades don’t automatically equate to success or happiness in life! I was always good in school, but I was a “pleaser” – which didn’t serve me well in other ways (physical health, mental health, etc…) I spent the first 20 years of my life trying to be what everyone else wanted me to be, then the next 20 years trying to figure out who *I* wanted to be!

      It’s a journey – I hope you find your own path.
      Hang in there! And thanks for reading/sharing!

  13. RPM says:

    As a parent, teacher, and administrator of the gifted, I struggle to dispel the horribly misguided notion that our gifted kids “will be fine”. Thank you for voicing what those of us in the trenches know: to be gifted in this world is often more burden than blessing. These kids NEED local and federal support!

    • heidi says:

      Hi RPM,
      Thanks for being part of the “struggle”!! It’s worth the effort – I truly believe that!

      I firmly believe that many gifted learners are among the most vulnerable students in the system. I completely agree – we NEED to raise awareness, understanding, so we can get more support.

      Keep shouting it out!

  14. Barbara Robertson says:

    I wish I could have found this information when my boys, now 35 and 38 were in school. The older was labeled as “Gifted”. It became a great burden to him as the solution was thought to be additional busy work. He was a pleaser and worked hard to get it all done. He was also a perfectionist and a procrastinater making it even harder. He enjoyed the fun activities out of the classroom but struggled to get all the work done. In addition he doubted his giftedness because there were kids who would finish their work with ease and more quickly than him. He was and still is extremely creative
    and talented.
    The younger son was given the IQ test but not labeled. However, he had all of the same components of giftedness. We did not know until later that he had an eye problem. He was very sensitive and often called “baby” and being smaller than his classmates did not help. He was bullied often although it was not called that at the time. He was always a good student and excelled in all subjects. Then the first Junior High report card came, and he was on the honor roll. He came home and announced that he was disappointed because now “we would expect it.” He only did what was required to get by after that. He was and continues to be very creative and talented.
    I would have been better prepared to handle raising the boys had I had access to more appropriate information. Keep giving hope to people God has blessed with exceptional abilities.

  15. Jody says:

    Thats bang on. As a child I was way ahead of my peers, I later found out I have a 165 IQ. Now I have a son who’s intelligence is so far in excess of mine it scares me, all of this is very real and important.

  16. lori says:

    is there a private email where I can reach you? I have a question for you, that I would rather not post here. thankyou!

  17. Teresa Valyer says:

    I have always felt I had to hide my intelligence. Once in awhile it slips out, and people just stare. Even as a teacher, I had to dumb down. Now I have a very smart grandson, and I worry his needs won’t be met either. Our school district is proving that already.

  18. Jennifer H says:

    Thank you for the post. I agree with every word written. I watched my gifted child grow up and not be able to tell me what was going on. She would come home and have huge meltdowns. I am not gifted myself so I had no clue. I was in and out of psychologist offices for several years dealing with behavior / anger issues and “I just want to die” statements. I was fearful that she was depressed. The first psychologist said that she was not. I started to see patterns with the behavior and was told she has “school phobia”. This was a band-aid and a way for my child to get through the moment. After seeing the pattern several years in a row, I was referred to a gifted physiologist to have her evaluated. She spent 15 min with her and said she needs an IQ test I think you have a highly gifted child on your hands. The testing showed that she was exceptionally gifted. I read everything I could and she was text book EG. I learned ways to provide balance for her at home and shared the information with the teachers. I talked to administrators and kept being told, next year she will have x opportunity and it will help. The school was then hopeful that middle school would provide a huge change and extra opportunities for her and that she would “be fine”. They agreed to perform testing to have her skip a grade after first quarter (while I know this wasn’t the right answer, it was an answer in the public school system). So after my daughter telling me again that she was not being challenged and was continually told to put her pencil down in class and stop drawing or writing her novel and listen to the 20 min lecture, I went in and asked that she be evaluated. The principal pulled out the standardized tests in various areas and for the most part an average of 20 ppl in a class of 200+ scored higher than her with the exception of reading comprehension, only 4 scored higher. He further went on to state that because she was not getting A+ (As were not good enough) and because she had turned down extra credit work that she was exactly where she belonged and would be “fine”. I pushed back on the As topic and reminded the principal with a PhD in who knows what that gifted learners learn in a different way, that no one is perfect and A+ are not a measurement, and that she likely turned down the work because it wasn’t challenging. He remained firm with his rejection to have her evaluated. I asked that he have the Challenge teacher do a peer sharing session with the teachers so that they understood how to recognize and teach to gifted children and I shared several high end educational web sites. I asked that they consider allowing her to test out of a topic and allow her to take the free education for a deeper dive. I followed up a few days later to the discussion and stated that I respectfully disagreed with his assessment that she was “fine” and asked that he spend a day with her and see for himself. I asked that she have an education plan put in place for the next semester even if it was as simple as letting her attend 7th grade LA. I was told no. We are now looking into schools that are 45 min away that are better equipped to teaching her properly. I asked her the other day what she expected from a different school. She said to feel challenged and relaxed. I asked her to explain relaxed. She said that after the first 5 min in each class its like winding her up and by the end of the day she is maxed on the stress level. Wow! That explains the meltdowns when she was little. I told her that I didn’t know what that felt like, but could only imagine it was like me watching Blue’s Clues for 6 hours a day and after the first 5 min I knew the answer and where it was going. She said yep, that is pretty much it. Her emotional lows are fewer and far between as she gets older, I fear what continuing in an environment will do to her long term if she is not properly challenged and “relaxed”. Thank you again for putting what so many of us are living into words to let us know that we are not alone and we are not crazy.

  19. Don Reva Whoju says:

    Thanks for sharing…

    When I recently asked for some time to discuss my work with my team leader, I asked him why he did not take the initiative to have this conversation. His answer: ‘I thought: Don is doing well and he will be fine.’ I felt un unexpected anger rising up in me and it instantly brought me back to my teenage years where both my parents and educators made this remark. My parents put a lot of time and effort in helping and supporting my younger brother who literally screemed for attention. Since I had all A’s and B’s the educators would not invite my parents for the regular evening for parents. I felt a sudden sadness realizing I missed a lot of support although I did not realize at that time.

    I am in my early fourties and I only now have I come to realize what the impact is of missing the support I needed so dearly back then. Slowly I am allowing the anger and sadness to surface. To feel it, embrace it and use it to convert the emotions into constructive action: asking for help, seeking support and helping others who share the same struggle.

    Thanks for sharing your story and for providing a place to share experiences!

  20. Tom says:

    This article is very important. And let me put it in perspective of a person this article is directed towards.
    Imagine a twice exceptional child who worries about his shortcomings than his strengths he is always going to believe he is stupid, and he thinks he is afraid of “expectations” aka imposter syndrome. He hides what strengths he does have to not be noticed as a smart person.
    The child feels diffrent and stupid, he feels different he knows something is “wrong” in his head, why would he think he is smart or that he is on his path to “advanced personality developemeny”, he educates himself and pin points tiny aspects of his behaviour motivated by “over excitabilities” and ends up with ADHD, Ring of fire, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder and finally hipochondria.
    He does not even consider the route of giftedness and often numbs the pain with alchol and this leads him down a path of even more “internal conflict” and eventually worse.
    So thank you for this article.

  21. Paul says:

    Very interesting and thoughtful post and discussion.

    I very much relate to the ideas here and was deeply saddened by the suicide of Robin Williams.

    I’m 61 and didn’t get any real information about my “twice exceptionality” until I was 54 (even after years of therapy) and, as others have indicated, am “grossly underachieving” and have suffered from major anxiety all my life.

    I lost my one true intimate to Leukemia just four months before Robin’s death so I was ripe at the time.

    It is amazing how having one person to be yourself with can make the difference…

    Posts like this are very helpful. Thanks.

  22. C says:

    Even though I find some relief when reading this and knowing there is more people in the world that feel the same way I do, I still feel so alone, abandoned and sick of people saying or thinking I am just too sensitive that I just want to end it, stop feeling this bad.

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