Anxiety in Gifted Children: 3 Simple Steps Parents and Educators Can Take

Gifted children and anxiety often seem to just go hand in hand. Experiencing their world more intensely as well as having a more intuitive understanding of complex connections and interactions in their life and in the physical world can create a plethora of reasons for gifted children to experience anxiety in their lives. Being so acutely aware of what is going on in their world and what future possibilities can hold, gifted children can naturally develop above-average anxiety. They begin to worry, oftentimes making mountains out of mole hills.

In school, fear of failure, perfectionism, and not being able to live up to the expectations many may have for their high potential can leave our gifted children so anxious that they just crumble. Whether you are a teacher in a traditional school with gifted students in your class, a parent of a gifted child in traditional school or you homeschool your gifted child, being mindful that anxiety can plague our gifted children is the first step in  easing the effects of anxiety in their lives.

Beyond understanding and being mindful that anxiety is often a trait gifted children can be saddled with, what else can you do as a teacher or parent to help a gifted child suffering from anxiety? Seeking the care of a mental health professional is always important if a gifted child’s anxiety is causing concern at school or at home. While we as parents and teachers are not qualified to treat anxiety, we can be mindful and more thoughtful when interacting with gifted children who may be suffering with anxiety. Many times, what we say and how we react to their anxiety can increase the distress a gifted child is feeling.

Here are three simple steps parents and teachers can take to avoid increasing the worries of a gifted child through our actions and words:

  1. AVOID SAYING, DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT—Understanding that gifted children will be anxious about events and issues you may find groundless, unreasonable or even ridiculous is key here. For you, the gifted child’s fear is unwarranted, but for her, it is very real and concerning. Telling a gifted child don’t worry trivializes her fear and can belittle the child who is struggling with anxiety. Saying don’t worry can humiliate her, cause her to feel bad about herself and make her feel her anxiety is yet another way she is very different from her same-age peers. You may also end up with a child who begins to worry about her worries—being anxious over her own anxiety.  Acknowledging the fears of a gifted child, validating her concerns and showing empathy may help her work towards making peace with her fears.
  2. DON’T HOLD THEM TO UNREASONABLE EXPECTATIONS—Gifted children most likely are already keenly aware of the need to follow the rules, comply with educational expectations and to excel in school. We don’t need to add to this acute awareness by holding unreasonably high expectations of our gifted children that may only be important to us as teachers and parents. Yet, what parent or teacher can help but visualize all the great successes a gifted child is capable of? But not all gifted children will attain success and happiness by achieving that assumed eminence. We should not feel anger or regret if our gifted child decides he doesn’t want to go to college or decides to quit piano even though he is a piano prodigy. We should only help him achieve what makes him happy and support him in his efforts to reach his own vision of success.
  3. AVOID THREATENING WITH NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES—Naturally as parents and teachers of gifted students, we see the huge potential these children have, and sometimes, as in #2, we hold unreasonable expectations for our gifted children. When our gifted children do not fulfill our expectations, many adults tend to voice to our children the negative consequences of not reaching these expectations. Threatening a gifted child with future negative outcomes like, “you won’t get into college with those grades”, or “you are going to be embarrassed if you don’t make Honor Roll” can only compound their anxiety and actually propel them further away from attaining their success and happiness.

Understanding a gifted child’s propensity for anxiety and showing empathy towards their worries and fears is essential. Sitting down with a gifted child and objectively parsing through her fears and worries may also help her examine what makes her anxious and gain some control of her fears and worries. If a gifted child’s anxiety is causing significant issues in her life, please seek the help of a mental health professional.

Anxiety can be crippling for many gifted children in regard to their education. As teachers and parents, it is vital that we understand anxiety in gifted children and avoid any actions or words that can increase anxiety in our gifted children.

RESOURCES

BOOKS:

Make Your Worrier a Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Child’s Fears by Dr. Dan Peters

From Worrier to Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Fears by Dr. Dan Peters

“Dr. Dan Peters: Why does my child worry so much?” Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Guest Post

ARTICLES:

“Anxiety and 2e Kids”,   2E Twice-Exceptional Newsletter  

“High Anxiety” by Ian Byrd

 

This post is part of Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page‘s Blog Hop on Anxiety. Click the graphic below to see all of the posts in this blog hop!

blog_hop_apr15_anxiety_small

37 Comments on “Anxiety in Gifted Children: 3 Simple Steps Parents and Educators Can Take

  1. I found this site by trying to “figure out” somehow if my 11 yr. old son is gifted. What or how do I go about this? What is the test I should ask for in school? I feel like I will be looked at like that crazy parent! He has SO many traits!
    High anxiety about many things and situations. Extreme fear of weather events, fear of flying, crime. (He slept on an airmattress in our bedroom for a year ) terrified someone was going to break in and kill him 🙁
    He is sound sensitive, has outbursts of anger over small things but is very sensitive and compassionate to animals and friends. High expectations of peers and himself in school. If he gets one question wrong he will need to examine why and want “proof” that it’s wrong. He can’t be happy with an A if it in his mind can be an A+.
    He has excellent behavior but questions authority (quietly) and the “rules” but only will say it at home. Fairness is a Huge thing for him too.
    He has excellent grades but “hates” school. To the point of telling me on a cloudy dreary day “see how it is outside? that’s how I feel all the time in school”
    It BROKE MY HEART!
    I believe the micro-management of Common Core math and teaching to the test (We are in Massachusetts ) is killing his attitude for learning.
    He’s now in 5the grade has to fill out a reading log and write about what he read nightly which is why he now doesn’t like reading, Ugh…
    Lunch is too short and leaves little time for social interaction. Only 20 min. for recess 🙁 His only highlight of the day.

    I think his sadness and hatread of school is valid but not sure if he’s gifted or just smart and miserable with school.

    HELP!!!

    • Heather,

      You should be able to request that his school evaluate your son for giftedness. If they refuse, be persistent. As many schools and school districts differ, I would not know which test they will give. If you feel the results are not valid, then have a private evaluation done by a psychologist who is familiar with gifted children.

      Also, look up the different tests used for IQ testing and be knowledgeable about them–one of these tests should be administered by the school district, but some school districts use achievement tests which should not be used to identify giftedness.

      Whether your son is gifted or very intelligent, if he is bored and not challenged in school, then something should be done to challenge him. Children’s love for learning should be promoted in schools, but Common Core and standardized teaching/testing seem to have taken over unfortunately.

      If you need any more information, please don’t hesitate to ask! Best of luck!!!

  2. This is exactly what I needed tonight with my 8 year old son. Our school district doesn’t test for gifted until 4th grade, but will be doing so this year with him anyway. He sees an amazing therapist weekly. He places such pressure on himself to be perfect – luckily his teachers have all been understanding and amazing, reviving him the tests up to 3 different times. They tell me he can answer every question in class without a thought, but can’t complete a test. I’ve always told him I don’t care about his grades as long as he tries his best – it’s his behavior marks that must be good. This year we’ve suddenly had behavioral issues in school, and I couldn’t figure out why, until he was moved from a group he was having problems with a boy in – and put in the teacher’s table. He’s always been the golden boy, teacher’s pet, shining example, and this year he’s not the ‘display child’ – so he was finding the praise from becoming a popular or cool kid, misbehaving in the process. Since he was moved, he’s been flawless all week. I went in to talk to them about my discovery and they’re developing a point system just for him ❤️ I’m so lucky to have such a supportive school and therapist, but he’s coming out with such challenges I’ve never seen before. It’s one of those things I’m so glad to know I’m not alone in!

    • No, Megan, you are not alone–not at all! So many of us have traveled the path you are on and are here to support you. The best advice I ever received regarding raising a gifted child is: the mountains are higher, but the valleys are lower.

      All the best on your journey! <3

  3. Thank you this article. It definitely rings true for our 2x exceptional kiddo. Our child is so anxious bout standing out that he holds everything together at school. We have tried to foster techniques such as progressive relaxation, meditation, and grounding in him.

    • It’s 4.11am and thank goodness I came across this page. My 15 year old son has suffered with anxiety, panic attacks, unable to sleep, mind racing, issues at school due to arguing facts and knowing more than his teacher is teaching, breakdowns, sadness the list goes on. 2 years ago the doctor referred him to a psychologist who focused on the sleeping issues which worked for a while but didn’t really give us chance to go into the rest of the problems. Today after a very distressing month of every day anxiety, wanting to talk all the time, sadness we have been referred back to the psychologist and another specialist who deals purely with sleeping dis-orders. Naturally we have to wait over a month for these appointments and i’m exhausted trying to help. Tonight he tried to go to sleep for over 3 hours. He read, listened to music etc and he ended up begging me to sit in his room and just tell him old stories until he fell to sleep. He hasn’t been to school for over 2 weeks and I’m feeling pretty desperate for him now it’s so awful to see your own child suffer like this. Anyone with similar experiences to these?

  4. Having raised a GT child that had high anxiety, I can relate to this article.She constantly stressed out about when and where she would make her first B. Loosing sleep over it. As both a parent and teacher I wanted her to be challenged but not if it meant her health. I always encouraged her but not with unrealistic expectations.

    • Gifted children definitely pose more concerns with anxiety in school, especially when they have perfectionistic tendencies. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if schools didn’t have to use grades and just looked for each child to show improvement and adequate progression?

  5. 41 years old in Copenhagen, Denmark. Reading your article and the comments brought tears to my eyes. To have my school age self described so precisely… I feel understood as well as infinitely sad that I never got any help trying to deal with being me.

    • Mette, I’m so sorry to hear that. My heart goes out to you.

      Giftedness is still so misunderstood mainly because schools have dealt with it as though these children have won the lottery for intelligence, school achievement and life success. We know that is often far from the truth with their propensity to be very sensitive, anxious and emotional.

      Thank you for sharing your feelings about being gifted with us!

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  7. Thank you for this very useful article.

    My 7 year old son is high-ability and has recently been put on a behavioral program because he gets off-task, cannot sit still, and distracts other students. His fine motor skills are lacking and his handwriting is awful. His test scores are quite above average and he is one of 7 children in second grade that are in the “gifted” class.

    I had to use eye shadow on my sons eyebrows again today to cover the bald spots from his plucking (more bald than hair at this point). Initially I was worried that something specific was wrong. I thought he might be getting bullied, but when we talk I don’t catch any red flags. He worries about math time tests and wants to go back to first grade. He says second grade is just so hard, but he is very capable of doing the work. He cries when you “kill nature” (step on an ant). He cries when he looses a turn on a game. He cries when someone (even little sister) says something he considers untrue. He is argumentative and emotional with peers. His fight or flight seems more like a fight or cry. He is insistent that he loves his life but on more than one occasion has said he doesn’t like himself.

    Initially I was stern. I come from a family of John Wayne type cowboys and regularly told him to “toughen up”. I too was an anxious child who cried excessively, and I finally stopped when my teacher put a bucket around my neck and told me I could go home to my mom when I filled it with tears. I wore the “cry baby” bucket for 3 days before I stopped… harsh right? Still, I did stop crying (at least in that all day way -to go home). I grew up believing she helped fix me. I believed in that tough love. So, though I would never make him wear a bucket, I told my child that others wouldn’t want to play games with him if he couldn’t control his crying and that his problems (like getting the ice cream w/o fudge in the center) were not real problems. I marginalized his feelings and worries because they seemed very inflamed and even spoiled to me at times.

    When he started pulling out his hair and was deemed “tier 2 “, I started researching his behaviors in more depth. Looks like my old school tough love did more harm than good for my baby. I assure you that I did not mean to be cruel, but I know that doesn’t change what he must have felt.

    Now, I am trying to encourage him to be mindful of his actions and get him to express what “wishes” he has… sounds better than worries.

    I still have not found a method to help him with the emotional flooding, nor have I been able to help him stop pulling out his eyebrows. His compulsions are on and off and I try to just tell him I love him with or without hair. Still, he looks odd and I’m sure it isn’t helping with his social interactions.

    Obviously I’m no expert… but discussing “wishes” has helped us understand his worries. I hope this little linguistic trick might help others who struggle to get details from their child.

    I have looked into counseling but feel like I’m throwing a dart at the phone book. The doctors that recognize a real variation in understanding “disorders” amongst gifted children do not exist in my area. I will continue to learn to understand and advocate for my little guy.

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  9. I recall as a #gifted kid in the 70s being told not to worry. What inanity! Teach acceptance and anxiety management. At times, accept that your smart child can’t cope with some things yet. Do other things that are gentle. Let you #gifted child take mental health break days. Its not that we’ll get behind … lol … most of all beware of teachers who hate atypical children or say ‘he just needs to toughen up’ … toxic to #gifted sensitive kids.

    • Oh Jim, the one line I hated the most to hear in regard to my gifted sons was, “he just needs to toughen up!” You are exactly right, it is toxic to sensitive gifted kids.

      Thank you for adding your thoughts on anxiety and gifted kids here–we all need to share with each other our tips, advice and support for each other because it is a bumpy ride raising gifted children! Sometimes, we need all the help we can get 🙂

  10. This article resonates with me as a parent and educator. Validating the fears and anxieties of gifted students is so important, and I find that those fears are often misread by teachers. For example, my son worried about a high-stakes test recently and was genuinely upset with himself for missing one question because it was a simple mistake. The teacher, however, misread it as unnecessary drama and “asking for praise” for doing so well because she couldn’t imagine that he would really be upset about missing one question when he had such a high score. It was genuine and he needed reassurance. Instead he got the old standby of “being knocked down a notch.”

    • I understand completely and I could name many times a similar thing happened to my sons. Your story is a perfect example why all teachers should receive training on the characteristics of gifted children. Just knowing and understanding that gifted children can be extremely sensitive and are often perfectionists could have made a difference with how this teacher reacted to your son.

      Thank you for sharing your son’s experience with us!

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  12. As a 41 year old GT “kid” I still struggle with horrible anxiety and OCD. I’ve been a “worry-wart” for as long as I can remember. Parents, please be aware that your child may deal with anxiety their whole lives. Especially once they hit the teen years and can start to emotionally process the sources of their fears, please do what you can to help them develop coping mechanisms. If they better understand that their asynchronous development is the root of many of their fears, it can help!

  13. Hi Celi,
    I appreciate your article and can understand the stressors involved with anixiety. We have a Twice Exceptional 5 year old daugther who has been concerned with mommy and daddy dying and black holes sucking up planet Earth! She has been getting weekly therapy for the last 5-6 months. While theraoy had helped a bit with social anxiety; I am not sure it had done a great deal with her generalized anxiety. We had her tested last year and found out she is gifted but her anxiety makes it very difficult for accurate testing! A supportive approach to parenting is imperative in this population as these highly sensitive and emotional juds makes parenting quite a challenge!!!

    • Yes, Erin, it is a challenge to parent gifted children as being gifted is a challenge. I’m so sorry to hear about your sweet little girl being so anxious. She is lucky to have such caring, thoughtful and knowledgeable parents!

      Thanks for sharing your story with us!

  14. This is my son at the moment. Highly anxious twice exceptional (medical diagnosis of AS, recognised by his school as gifted) 16 year old, about to sit 12 GCSEs. If he gets less than an A in even one subject in his eyes (but not ours or schools) he will have failed. Anxiety comes out as uncontrollable anger at home, don’t seem to be able to get the help we need.

    • Paula, I’m so sorry to hear this. I keep saying over and over, no child should have to suffer simply because he was born gifted. I can only empathize with you and let you know you are not alone. I know that doesn’t offer you the help you need, but don’t give up, keep trying to locate the support you need. I know firsthand how difficult this all can be! All my best <3

  15. “AVOID SAYING, DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT” Oh yes. Great advice. People say it all the time without thinking. Thanks, Celi!

    • Thank you, Paula. I knew about that one because I’ve said it and I’ve had it said to me. Either way, it is futile and hurtful.

  16. Very helpful and compassionate suggestions that all parents can use. Not only useful for gifted kids, but for all children. And not a bad idea if parents can apply these same guidelines to themselves!

    • Thanks, Gail. Simple ideas from my own experiences as a parent and a teacher–things I wish I had done and things I said that made a huge difference.

  17. This post is great timing for me – anxiety is probably the number one issue we have with our son. And this –> “Telling a gifted child don’t worry trivializes her fear and can belittle the child who is struggling with anxiety” – that is SO tough. Sometimes I hear myself doing this, invalidating his worries, and I know better. But knowing better at an intellectual level isn’t enough. It’s important to be mindful of my words as well as my nonverbal communication. I’ve got to stop what I’m doing and look at him – give him my full attention when he’s worried. Acting like it’s no big deal is not the answer.

    It helps to remember how I feel when someone tries to make me feel better by telling me that my anxiety isn’t rational, or that I’m making a bigger deal of something than is necessary. It’s difficult to keep that in mind when Jack is worried about an issue that I’m certain is not truly a problem. For example, I know that there’s no reason for him to be afraid of the dark. Nothing’s going to come out from under his bed and “get” him. But his fear is age-appropriate and no less valid than my fear of calling people on the phone.

    Thank you for this! It’s important for us to remember that he does have severe anxiety issues, and that how we react to Jack is critical to helping him learn to cope with his fears. He pulls out his hair, and we had to shave his head for the third time last week. Right now, it feels like anxiety is the most pressing concern with Jack, more than ADHD or anything else. I get to take anti-anxiety medication for my panic attacks/anxiety, but he doesn’t have that luxury. I’m hoping that if we keep trying to attend to him and his worries, my own issues with anxiety might improve – simply through helping Jack learn more adaptive coping skills.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Chris. You are right, we know what we should and shouldn’t do, but we are human and we all lapse once in a while.

      I think the most significant one for me is not to trivialize it or brush it off, but to show empathy and understanding.

      Jack is certainly a lucky little boy to have such a loving, caring and thoughtful mom!

    • hi…cheris

      I read your comment on anxiety…
      as recently.. we helped one case ..

      as m doing energy based technique called pranic healing… whr we get miracle result for this

      whatever you are doing is very nice as father…

      u can try this also

      thanks

      blessings be with you

      Bijal Savla

  18. Particularly enjoy this: “Acknowledging the fears of a gifted child, validating her concerns and showing empathy may help her work towards making peace with her fears.”

    I see one thing slightly differently, in that it is hard to implement a “do not” list. (As they say in Nonviolent Communication, “You can’t do a don’t.” ) One aspect of anxiety is a desire to avoid what is undesirable, and it is easier to have positive action steps that you can say “yes” to. The sentence above, about acknowledgment, validation, and empathy, shows three positive keys.

    • Thanks, Bob. I like that–“You can’t do a don’t”.

      Honestly, when I was writing this, I tried to keep in mind that I needed to write these three ideas in a positive “try to do” way instead of a “don’t do”, but as a parent and a teacher who has made mistakes, I look back over my experience and simply think, “I shouldn’t have said or done that.”

      I really appreciate your input Bob since this is an area of expertise for you in your practice as a family therapist who specializes in nonviolent communication..

      Thank you for adding your thoughts!

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