Gifted Children–Mistaken Expectations


We meet people, we interact with them for a short while, and soon we characterize them and place them into one of the people and personality categories we house in our brain. Our life experience helps us to create and define these categories, and this process can benefit us when we come across someone we feel we need to be wary of or someone we feel we can trust. Or it can hurt.

Sometimes we judge people as not trustworthy when they are—we misjudged. We may project someone as unfriendly, but they end up being our best friend—wrong projection. We make mistakes with our characterizations and subsequently the expectations we hold for them.

Mistaken expectations—this is what I call the expectations we wrongly hold for someone based on our misjudgment of them.

I discovered mistaken expectations when I began noticing how adults expect more from gifted children simply because they are characterized as being more intelligent.

Sam is a highly gifted 10 year old. He plays out in his neighborhood with the other children nearly every afternoon after school.  He enjoys interacting with children younger and older than himself, but often prefers joining in on the neighborhood parents’ conversations. His advanced verbal skills and ability to intelligently discuss such adult topics as politics or current events with the adults earned him respect, but also earned him mistaken expectations.

The parents in Sam’s neighborhood know him as being highly intelligent and a leader, so naturally they also expect him to be emotionally and socially mature. Mistakenly, these adults assume Sam’s emotional and social maturity are on par with his intelligence.  When conflicts break out among the playing children, which commonly happens, Sam is held accountable above the others, even above those children older than himself.

“Sam, you should know better.  Of all the children here, you should be the one who understands the most about taking turns!  If the little kids cut in line, you are smart enough to know it is not worth fussing about.”

Annie is a gifted 15 year old and she belongs to her high school’s competitive computer technology team. The team learns to program, learns new software and enters competitions. When a new software needed for the next competition was released, Annie was the first to catch on quickly and easily to the new software in the training sessions. Naturally, she was assigned to take the lead on the usage of this software during competitions. But when the next competition got closer and the stress was being felt throughout the team, her teammates expected her to utilize this new software quickly and with no glitches.

“Annie, you need to be able to get this done quicker, that’s why the team chose you to lead. You are smart, you can do better, and the team is depending on you.”

Jordan is in 8th grade. He is profoundly gifted, but still struggles in algebra. His algebra teacher knows Jordan is gifted and has skipped a grade. She knows he has good grades in his other classes, but wonders why he is failing her class. Despite Jordan’s outgoing personality and seeming maturity, his daydreaming in class and refusal to show his work when doing algebra problems frustrates his algebra teacher. For his teacher, the only logical reason for him to be failing algebra is his own laziness. What other reason could there be for a profoundly gifted student who is doing well in all of his other classes to be failing algebra?

“Jordan, if you are so smart, why are you failing algebra?  Maybe you just need to work harder and start doing your homework. And stop trying to be Mr. Popular! If not, you are going to have to stay after school working with the remedial algebra computer program.”

Sam, Annie and Jordan are all gifted and their demeanor portrays them as confident, intelligent and mature, and naturally they are characterized as such which often leads to higher expectations of them—mistaken expectations.

Many people who do not understand gifted children or know the common traits of giftedness fail to take into account the emotional and social sensitivities and intensities of the gifted.

Sam may seem more mature than his age to the neighborhood parents, but he struggles with taking turns just like any other 10 year old might. His strong intolerance of unfairness causes an avalanche of intense emotions and frustration.  The mistaken expectations of the adults add to his emotional turmoil.

Jordan, despite being profoundly gifted and excelling in his other classes is a visual-spatial learner, making algebra a difficult subject for him. His teacher’s flippant attitude towards him has caused Jordan an exceptional amount of emotional distress and he exhausts himself daily trying hard to not let anyone see he is really near tears and just dying inside.

Annie did indeed catch on quickly to this new software, but despite her advanced skills, she is feeling the pressure from the looming competition more acutely than the rest of her team. Her emotional intensities are wreaking havoc on her ability to focus and are slowing her down. Her strong sense of loyalty has her in a panic worrying what will happen if she doesn’t meet her team’s expectations of her and she fails her team.

The mistaken expectations of gifted children hurt, and they can cause severe emotional and social issues.

What can we do?

We first need to remember that despite appearing as mini-adults, Sam, Jordan and Annie are children. Also, we need to remember that gifted children very often suffer from emotional and social sensitivities and intensities making typical adverse situations feel like the end of the world for these kids. We need to advocate for gifted children and try to educate others about giftedness. As parents, we need to help  teachers, neighborhood parents and other adults see who our children really are.  And we need to teach our gifted children how to advocate for themselves so that they can try to diminish the  mistaken expectations.

Mistaken expectations hurt.

Has your gifted child ever been the victim of mistaken expectations?

37 Comments on “Gifted Children–Mistaken Expectations

  1. Pingback: Gifted Children – Types (Part 2 ) | HEAL & GROW for ACoAs

  2. The root of the problem is that some educators see Gifted kids as a convenient resource to be exploited for the school. The school gets everything out of them, and puts nothing back.

  3. Pingback: I Have a Gifted Kid and I Will No Longer Be Ashamed | Crushing Tall Poppies

  4. What will you say to your daughter who struggles with certain concept, certain subjects in school? Always received A’s, but now in High School, she seems to struggle a bit with math. My struggle as a mom would be, just take a regular course and not get stressed out, or should I challenge her to take pre-ap math and see where that leads to? Knowing what they can achieve, and how they are different from each other ( two daughters that are gifted), it’s hard to guide them at times. I am always thankful for your writings… Encouraging!

    • Hi Janet! Thanks for your sweet words.

      That is the million dollar question–a bit of a challenge (pre-AP) or happily cruising (reg.)? Yikes!

      Yes, they are all different and require different guidance. Parenting is not easy! I wish I would have taken AP Parenting, though. 😉

      Thanks Janet!

  5. So true. Thank you for bringing this issue up. Especially when the grown up world lacks knowledge and understanding about giftedness, this can be a huge problem for the child.
    We hear the advanced vocabulary and their interests, and think this implies the child should behave older than his/her years.. To me, these children are first and foremost this: children. The gifteness is a huge part of their being, of course, but we must not forget that they´re “just kids”. Kids who need us adults and teachers to “see” them and support them, the support they need might just be a little different than what we give another child of the same age.

    • Yes, Kari, absolutely, they are children first! And that is the facet that is lost sight of first when dealing with gifted children, especially those who have advanced verbal ability. With my own youngest son who has very strong verbal skills, I’ve had friends admit to me that they had forgotten he was a child during adult conversations, and then tried to remember if they had said anything he should not have heard. And their emotional intensities sometimes can make them even less mature than their age-mates.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this post, Kari. Truly appreciate it!

  6. This is spot on. My 13 year old son is even named Sam. He has been a tiny adult since he was born – it’s difficult to remember that he is just a boy who is afraid of the dark and worries about the world ending and wants everyone to like him and is extremely sensitive to criticism. He bounces back and forth between arrogantly confident and shockingly insecure. Thank you for writing this. ❤️

    • “He bounces back and forth between arrogantly confident and shockingly insecure”. Oh yes, I have seen this many times in gifted children including my own.

      Thank you, Sue, for stopping by and sharing your experience!

    • That is just like my son! Confidant then insecure. My question is what do we say to him to help him deal when he gets so emotional? he gets picked on, and you want to validate his feelings but want him to get “tougher” so he doesn’t keep getting picked on. What to do?

  7. This hits so close to home for me – I was one of these kids. Genius-level IQ (172), but paired with a raging case of dyslexia that no one cottoned on to until middle school because of my reading level (It’s easy to know if a word is jumbled or doesn’t make sense in the context of a sentence, but numbers? Nearly impossible to tell if I was supposed to be seeing 1234, or 1423, or 3541 without context). “gifted” and “genius” just means that we are relatively more intelligent than our age peers, not that we have the emotional maturity and experience of our mental peers, and I really wish more people would realize it.

    • Ashley, I agree, I wish more people understood giftedness. That is what continues to drive me to keep writing and advocating for gifted children.

      I’m so sorry for your experience and sadly, it happens to so many gifted children.

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience–I can write about my experiences with my family, but hearing the experiences of others helps to boost our advocacy for understanding, and maybe one day our voices will be heard!

  8. I noticed this at such an early age. My daughter was in prek and although not tested at the time she was so smart. However she continuously had accidents. I told her teacher that if she sees her wiggling in her seat, she should tell her to go to the bathroom. She admitted that because my daughter is so intelligent, she figured she’d just go. I explained she doesn’t want to miss any moment of school and she understood. She is now in 2nd great and doing great.

    • Exactly, “because my daughter is so intelligent, she figured she’d just go.” This is it exactly. Thank you, Kelly, for sharing your experience with mistaken expectations.

  9. Nailed it! I never did get why my children were expected to be parents or teachers to the other children.

  10. Nice summary of common misconceptions about gifted children and their social-emotional maturity. Many parents fall prey to this stereotype and utter the same sentimet with their own children as they are bewildered by the discrepency in intellectual abilities and social-emotional range.

    • Yes – I do this. And I know better, and it breaks my heart when I see I’ve done it again. My wonderful wonderful child is gifted, but still a child. We had an educational assessment done (2e confusions), and the bar chart of the outcomes of different tests showed wild variation: somethings were 8-9 years ahead of typical; some were 2-4 behind typical. And the way all these competencies, capacities and vulnerabilities interact are awesomely wonderfully unique but also confusing to parent. Especially because diet, sleep pattern, emotional stress can change the interactive equation from hour to hour (moment to moment?). I am mostly doing it all wrong, but I’m trying with all my heart. Any saving grace is this: my child is a kinder and more forgiving and more flexible person than I was/am. 🙂

      • Lisa, I can definitely empathize. I too will swear I’m doing it all wrong, but then we also know that raising a gifted child is often very difficult–sometimes completely exhausting.

        And yes, things can change moment to moment!

        Thank you for sharing your thoughts. The more we all speak out, the better this journey may be for us parents and for our gifted children!

  11. Celi, I cannot tell you how much I love this. My son is PG and while he can talk to you with an amazing vocabulary, and he can produce incredible artwork, but he is VERY much 6 when it comes to emotions and maturity. In fact, he might be slightly younger. And he has ZERO desire to please a teacher if the teacher isn’t giving him something of interest, so school last year was the pits. I wish more people understood this.

    • Yes, absolutely–“too bad it’s so accurate!” I enjoyed your recent post, “Guilty thoughts: What parents of gifted children really think.” You said what so many of us don’t like to admit to ourselves. Thank you, Gail.

  12. You describe a common problem for gifted children so well. In a relatively few paragraphs you make a very compelling case. Well done, as usual, Celi.

  13. Pingback: Article: “Gifted Children–Mistaken Expectations” By Celi Trépanier

  14. Hit home today. I have a 2e kiddo, gifted with autism,albeit very high functioning. He was holding a conversation with the woman behind us in line at the grocery store and she was floored this tiny 5 year old could read so well and do mental math so well. She had intense curiosity so I mentioned the autism and she said I (we) have it wrong. Uh huh. No way is he autistic. Mmmm. He’s so articulate. Yes, and that is the problem, that he’s articulate with adults but doesn’t get it. Please get another opinion. … It’s wrong. No, it’s right. He’s gifted, yes, but the issues are still there. It’s why so many people have doubted the autism, because he is so very interesting of a child, a little professor, but he has autism nonetheless. There’s a reason why things are called hidden disabilities but let’s let the professionals do their jobs, shall we, and leave the diagnosing to them? It just makes you weary.

    • Oh Kathryn, I can just imagine how wearing it can be. With kids like these, wouldn’t it be great if we could just throw a t-shirt on them that explains everything so we don’t have to explain, apologize or defend? Thanks for stopping by and sharing your story!

    • Kathryn, this has my experience as well with my son. He is now almost 12. I know the nice people mean well when they say we are wrong…but it’s frustrating. This is why I’ve had to fight at every level in public school also. Seems to very little understanding of the 2e kids. He can’t cross the street safely on his own yet but he can do big math in his head. So they expect something different from him. They expect him to have the emotional maturity of teen. Both of my children are known at school all the way up the command chain. Bright, sweet kids with little ability to regulate those big emotions. Along with little ability to understand those emotions. Makes for some difficult days at school. They see other kids just breeze through the day and make friends and ask why they are different. I just keep supporting them. Because my husband and I were the same kids. We’re doing ok. But youth was rough. My son often says “I’m what autism looks like mom the kids get it…the adults don’t”. Thank you for this Celi!

  15. Oh Celi, this hits home. I was Sam.

    My daughter is also Sam.I was constantly told to act my age… they meant my cognitive age and not my birth age. Because if they truly remembered my birth age they would have never of put the extra pressure I always felt. And because I acted older I looked older too with how I carried myself.

    My daughter is also Sam. I have to often remind myself to not be so hard. I often think of the extra expectations and pressures I had on me as a child and remember that my daughter is no different and to not be so hard and not allow others to be as well.

    Thank you for this wonderful eenlightening post.

    • Thanks Nicole. Yes, it home for me last night and although Sam, Annie and Jordan are fictional, there are bits and pieces of real life truth from my family in those stories. And you are right, as a parent, it is difficult not to fall into expecting more from your gifted child. Darn, giftedness is just so difficult sometimes–for child and parent! Thank you for sharing your experience, Nicole <3

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