Thursday, August 14, 2014

Back to school blues: Why gifted teens dread returning to school

Some gifted teens look forward to starting back to school.

But many do not. Many are filled with anxiety, foreboding and dread. At best, they may anticipate another year of boredom and disappointment. At worst, they are consumed with fears about academic performance or social isolation.


What do gifted teens worry about most when returning to school?

1. I will fail

As unlikely as this seems, even gifted children worry that they won't live up to expectations. Some exaggerate the likelihood of failure, predicting they will fail if they don't know all of the material. They overestimate the difficulty of the task at hand and assume the worst. Some teens may become paralyzed by their fears, leaving them incapable of completing or even starting a project. Test anxiety can affect their performance during exams, adding further weight to their fears about grades. 

2. I really am not gifted

Gifted students may face difficult academic material for the first time during high school. After years of exerting little effort, they may need to labor over a math problem or find they actually have to read the textbook! This may come as a shock, and rather than appreciating that this is “normal,” they may label it as a sign of inadequacy. Those who are perfectionists or equate their self-worth with grades can view a “B” as a sign of weakness. Filled with shame and self-loathing, they may try to hide their fears, and avoid asking for help when needed. Some eventually scale back on attempts to succeed, taking easier classes, or giving up previously beloved interests or activities.

3. I won't find any friends

Although more often a concern for freshman, this fear can still burden gifted teens throughout high school. While most adolescents experience social anxiety at some point, gifted teens often have a harder time finding friends who truly "get them." Worries can multiply if their friends are not scheduled in the same classes or lunch periods, or if they no longer participate in previously shared extra-curricular activities. Rather than appreciating that limited selection of like-minded peers reduces options for friendships, many blame themselves and assume innate personality flaws and other inadequacies.

4. I will be bored - once again

Gifted students are used to being bored and disappointed with their classes. Even honors, AP or IB classes, available in most high schools, may not provide the challenging learning environment these students crave. Some react to this disappointment with impatience and frustration and demand more; others remain complacent and resort to daydreaming, doodling, or texting during class. Chronically underchallenged, these children never get to stretch themselves, learn their limits or reach their potential.

5. I have to fake it

Many gifted teens are torn between whether to disguise their gifted abilities so that they fit in, or remain true to themselves. They may believe they have to "dumb themselves down" and perform poorly to achieve popularity. While this may enhance their social desirability, most teens know they are not being genuine and are sacrificing their interests. On the other hand, some gifted adolescents feel like imposters who will be "exposed" as being neither smart nor gifted. They assume they are faking their giftedness and have to get perfect grades to uphold this image.

6. I will have more battles with my parents

Whether an underachiever, late night owl, or partier, gifted teens know that arguments with parents typically increase during the school year. Parents who want the best for their children worry about academic progress and social behavior, and pressures at school increase the potential for conflicts. While some teens take these arguments in stride, many become deeply troubled by them, feel alienated and angry, and may act out as a result.

7. It's all about college

Many teens, gifted or not, feel enormous pressure to achieve good grades, high SAT and AP scores, and an accomplished resume to get into the college of their choice. Classes can seem exclusively focused on this goal rather than on an appreciation of the material. They may worry and obsess about getting into the ideal college, especially with competitive admissions criteria and tales of disappointment passed down from past graduates. And those gifted teens less focused on college frequently resent the attention given to grades and test scores, longing for classes that emphasize learning for its own sake.

How Parents Can Help

Returning to school brings with it added stress for most teens. A recent blog post highlighted how mental health needs among children increase during the school year. While gifted teens face the same life stressors as other children, the social/emotional traits so characteristic of many gifted individuals, such as intensity, heightened sensitivity, asynchronous development or perfectionism, create unique challenges. Parents can support these children by trying the following:

  • Help them develop a plan. Even though they are gifted, these teens still sometimes lack the executive functioning, or planning and organizational skills, to think things through. They may be able to program a computer or write a play, but planning how to get through a day of high school without mishap is beyond them. Help them strategize how they will approach each step of the process, what they will do if they hit roadblocks, whom they can contact for assistance at school if needed, and what friends they can count on for support. Even those teens who are typically great at planning can still benefit from another opinion about what might work.

  • Offer support related to their fears. Find a time when they are willing to talk. This could be before bed, when driving, or while performing a task together. Help them understand that their worries are normal, understandable, and that others have these fears as well. Help them identify what will combat the fears. This might include finding helpful distractions, calming strategies, or reassuring words or phrases they can use during times of stress. They may need to challenge unrealistic expectations, misconceptions about what others might think of them, or assumptions about future plans.

  • Intervene when necessary. Sometimes gentle persuasion and casual conversation are not enough. Some teens refuse to talk or are so entrenched in their anxiety, anger or pessimism that parents cannot reach them. Gifted teens can use their intellect and advanced reasoning abilities to convince themselves that they have all of the answers, and can rationalize their way out of anything. Parents need to clear a path through the muck, and firmly let them know that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Parents may need to insist that teens participate in consultation with teachers or support staff, get instructional guidance (e.g., developing study skills), or seek counseling, particularly if they are highly anxious, depressed or are showing signs of self-harm. 

With some guidance, planning and reassurance, the back-to-school blues can be short-lived, and fade as quickly as the first day of school. When gifted teens feel prepared, set realistic expectations, and know that their parents support them, they can better navigate the rocky terrain of high school.