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The Importance of Peers for Gifted Children and Adolescents

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Difference begets loneliness.

And while I’ve always had a positive spin on difference, why was I the only person who cried in history class in high school? One might look to emotional sensitivity about the horrors of war, or an academic understanding of the lingering impacts of trauma in communities.  I happen to think it was more my wildly creative imagination (or what Dabrowski calls “over-excitability”), a sense that all things are possible. I knew that the world did not have to be that way, and it was heartbreaking. It was also crazy-making to find that I was the only one crying.

Throughout my adolescence, I read about the peace-workers of the 1960s and 1970s, and it seemed like there was a core group of great friends.  Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Berrigan brothers had a rich exchange of visits and letters with each other and other peace-builders. Ah, I wanted a similar circle of friends.  Thankfully, my imaginational over-excitability served me well here: I alternately believed I was King Arthur amongst his knights, St. Francis amongst his brothers, and Kierkegaard amongst his books.

In middle school, I went to the library before cross country meets and avidly read a compilation of landmark cases of the U.S. Supreme Court. During that period, I also read that lawyers needed to thrive in the world as it was, and I decided that was not for me. (I was precocious in my reading but not yet wise: I didn’t consider how landmark cases do bring about change). In 2000 during my first year of college, I saw Ralph Nader speak and wrote in my journal of lectures, “He is so smart. I am going to law school.” From both the peace movement and progressive politics, I was looking for companionship. I was looking for depth and intensity in how people experienced the world.  This depth and intensity is directly related to my giftedness.

Fortunately, I am now able to share my understanding of difference and potential resulting loneliness with my clients. For four years, I have worked with a boy I’ll call Terry, now 12, who is profoundly gifted.  When I first met him, his eyes watered because I had recognized a part of him that longed to be mirrored: I had seen his developmental potential and passion. I assured him that there were other kids like him, and I asked if it was important to meet them now or enough to know that they exist.

He said it was enough to know they exist; that knowledge gave him comfort that he would one day be surrounded by true peers and not just age-mates.

Kids need to know that there are other kids who share a sense of passion, though the passions do not need to be aligned. One can love Shakespeare and another building their own computers.  They recognize each other by a certain glint in their eyes. Some may also have a slightly pause-filled cadence of speech as they search for the perfect word because they are twice-exceptional and are also on the autism spectrum; others are not.  Some may have intense sensory preferences in food and clothing; others go camping just fine.

They know each other when they find each other.

That said, it may be hard for significantly gifted kids to find each other in traditional schools, not that they wouldn’t be immediately apparent, but there just aren’t enough of them around.

For some families with gifted children, school is not a useful strategy. Terry’s family found a way for him to thrive with differentiated instruction in schools and enrichment activities out of school, supplemented by sessions with me to talk about his social-emotional development while learning how to juggle or playing board games. Terry’s family has given him the acceptance and freedom to pursue whatever his passions may be.  He faces intense multi-potentiality, as he can easily write science fiction novels, play the guitar, or design and manage an amusement park.  My hope for him is that he continues on his developmental path by trying many things, and continuing to pursue his passions.

All things are possible; he does not have to be alone in this.

{ 11 comments… add one }
  • marymartin417 February 1, 2013, 7:08 am

    incredibly, brilliantly, amazingly GOOD post – my favorite to date!

  • Adrienne Doolan April 9, 2013, 11:54 pm

    So glad I found your blog today. Maybe you can visit Dubai??? ????

  • Kristen April 18, 2013, 6:50 pm

    I am crying as I read this, it touched many nerves. I yearn to help my son find his peers. All of us who know my son, knew he was gifted when he was a wee boy. When he went to school, it was very obvious. (In grade 1, his teacher recommended that we put him in Public speaking, he thought it was awesome that this 5 year old could read and understand Shakespeare, and encouraged us to develop that.) In grade 3, he was pre-screened as gifted and recommended to have full testing in grade 4.
    That spring, we had already decided to pull him from school and home educate. He was bored, starting to act out a bit, refusing to finish assignments etc. As a result, he didn’t have the testing.
    I didn’t think it was important at the time. I had been put in the gifted program in school, until we moved to an area that didn’t subscribe to that view of education. By high school, I ‘knew’ that I wasn’t really that smart, and I didn’t seem to be very gifted in music or art or math…. though my emotional IQ was always very high. I did feel alone and isolated. Always. Even in a group of friends. I didn’t really get them. And they definitely didn’t get me.

    I see those same feelings in my son. Over time, he had lost his spark, his confidence. He doesn’t think he is really all that smart. Maybe he was once, but not anymore. He feels isolated and alone. He doesn’t have any peers to relate to, to collaborate with. He is having difficulty taking the next step, going to University. He is 18. We graduated him as a home schooler, but he doesn’t have an official diploma from our Province. My husband wanted him to have that, his concern is that his son be able to provide for a family someday and a diploma is important to being an employee. So our son is now taking official Provincial classes at a local High School here, and doing fine, but he is alone again. I was hoping that he would be well along his University pathway by now, I think that may be where he finds his peers.

    I have mother guilt, like I haven’t been able to give him what he needed. I thought that as we let him explore and learn at home, he would discover something he was passionate about and he would blossom. Instead, he is amazing at many things and has diverse interests, but nothing seems to light his fire, to motivate him intrinsically. And I feel like I have done him a disservice in not being able to help him do this.

    How can I help him find his peers and his passion?

    • byamtich April 19, 2013, 8:46 am

      Hi Kristen,

      I am touched by your comment. Your care for your son is so apparent. Since he is already suffering, there is no further risk in talking to him about anything. Would he be up for checking out the article that made you cry? Before he finds true peers, he could sit with whatever internal experience he has from missing them. Assure him that true peers are out there. If he enjoys some of my articles, perhaps there would be a good chance for us to work together by phone.

      Spark can return.

      Best,
      Bob

    • Jackie February 9, 2015, 3:55 pm

      Kristen, thanks for telling your story. It resonates with me as I reflect on my own growing years, and also on behalf of my children.
      I was one of those children who was given recognition for giftedness for a time at school, then felt like an intellectual failure for not delving into any interest with fervor and eventual success. I didn’t find something to be passionate about until I was 25, before that it was a sad-looking fumble through early adulthood. I don’t know if or how my mother may have struggled watching my life stagnate during that time, but I know we both felt proud when I reached that milestone.
      It’s been almost two years since you wrote that comment, and I don’t know if you’ll see this reply, but I hope things are looking brighter for both you and your son.

  • Paula Prober March 7, 2015, 8:27 pm

    I love this, Bob. I love reading about how you were as an adolescent. So beautifully sensitive.

    • byamtich March 8, 2015, 7:49 am

      Thanks, Paula! It’s interesting to see my sensitive side, since I was more explicitly brought up to be a warrior. I agree, though, and am grateful for the reflection. I told myself that if I ever stopped crying at lectures, that I would need to seriously adjust my life.

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