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The Gifted Child : Characteristics And Potential Problems.


What Is Meant By ‘A Gifted Child’?

According to the National Association For Gifted Children, a gifted child is one who is in the top 3 to 5% of children of his age in one of the following areas:

1) General intellectual ability

2) Specific academic aptitude

3) Creative thinking

4) Visual and performance arts

5) Leadership ability

Of course, greatly more has been written about child giftedness and the above represents an oversimplification, but it is beyond the scope of this article to go into extensive detail on this.

What Kind Of Characteristics A Gifted Child Posses?

It is useful to provide a list of the main characteristics that researchers (for example, Webb 1993, 2007) have typically found a gifted child to possess. These are as follows:

  1. high level of interest in, and curiosity about, a large range of topics; a seemingly insatiable thirst for knowledge and understanding; always asking questions
  2. an idiosyncratic and creative sense of humour
  3. experiences and displays intense feelings and emotions
  4. studies things that interest him with tenacity and persistence 
  5. has a long attention span
  6. can absorb and retain large amounts of information
  7. has a good memory
  8. early and superior understanding regarding nuances, subtleties and complexities of language (for example,  facility to make clever puns, understanding of subtext, implication, insinuation and the drawing of inferences)
  9. can form unusually complex sentences
  10. highly sensitive
  11. good at divergent thinking 
  12. good at putting things together in a creative and original manner
  13. good autodidacts; for example,  often largely teach themselves to read and write prior to going to primary school
  14. good at devising complex games
  15. invents imaginary playmates
  16. many, diverse and wide-ranging interests
  17. likes experimenting and takes an original approach to things

Unfortunately, in both the areas of education and psychology, research into gifted children is, relative to other areas of study within these disciplines, quite limited so firm conclusions about problems faced by gifted children are yet to be drawn; however, there are definite indications that many gifted children are misunderstood and that the causes of many of their behavioural characteristics are being misinterpreted.

What Kinds Of Problems Might A Gifted Child Experience?

It is certainly not true for every gifted child, but some are at increased risk of ADJUSTMENT PROBLEMS and consequently, of unhappiness. Problems, research shows, may develop in connection with the following:

extreme sensitivity
– alienation
– uneven development
– perfectionism
– role conflict
– inappropriate environments
– adult expectations
– self-definition

Let’s look at each of these in turn:


Because highly the gifted child has a high level of internal responses they are often INTENSELY SENSITIVE. Whilst this can certainly have its advantages, it can also EXACERBATE THE NORMAL PROBLEMS OF GROWING UP. For instance, the child’s intelligence may lead him/her to be unusually sensitive to social cues and may, for example, pick up on subtle signals leading him/her to sense rejection where it may not have been intended.

His/her sensitivity may lead him/her to respond strongly to what other children of the same age may well regard as trivial and unimportant; the other children may then ridicule and deride the child for what they perceive as his/her over-reactions. The child may then go on to form the view that there is something wrong with him/her and start to increasingly believe he/she are odd, leading to self-consciousness, low self-esteem and low social confidence. Importantly, also, the child may well pick up on society’s hypocrisy and social injustice very early on in his/her life, leading to feelings of cynicism and despair far earlier than others are likely to develop such feelings.


The child’s high intelligence and gifts may result in him/her relating to other children the same age as him/her in a manner more like that of an adult than that of a child. This can lead to problems with social integration. If he/she is not accepted by the other children this may lead him/her to socially withdraw. In turn, this can hinder the development of social skills which can then lead to the child being labelled as ‘odd’ or ‘weird’. If the gifted child then INTERNALIZES such labels (ie. the labels lead to the child believing he/she is as the labels describe him/her), social isolation and eccentricity may result.


Whilst the gifted child’s intelligence is very high, his/her emotional development is likely to be at a normal level. However, adults may (unreasonably) expect the child to have high emotional maturity because of his/her high level of intellectual development. When the child then has the normal emotional tantrums that most children of his/her age have, he/she may be WRONGLY LABELLED AS HAVING A BEHAVIORAL PROBLEM.



The high praise the gifted child will inevitably receive from school teachers etc. can lead to the child setting him/herself excessively high standards. He/she may become a perfectionist and perceive he/she has failed even when, objectively speaking, he/she has actually performed exceedingly well, and, therefore, when he/she gets the objectively accurate feedback, he/she may come to start distrusting it.


If the highly gifted child is male, he may well be in a school in which the prevailing culture means it is the boys who are ‘macho’ and good at sport etc. who obtain the approval and admiration of their peers. If the gifted child happens, for example, to be more interested in intellectual pursuits, such as poetry or chess, this can lead to ridicule and bullying.


The highly intelligent and gifted child will often find that the school year group he/she is in is not challenging enough and the pace of the learning is unsuitable. This can lead to frustration, withdrawal and behaviour problems.


The gifted child may find him/herself pushed very hard by his/her parents and by the teachers of every subject he/she is taking. In the reverse situation to the one described above, here the child finds he/she is unable to satisfy all these demands and is unable to put in the extra effort expected in relation to such a large array of subjects. This can result in the child’s OWN SPECIAL AREA OF INTEREST being overlooked; indeed, it may well be better if the child focuses the extra effort mostly in just his/her favoured area.


The very gifted and intelligent child will tend to have an INTENSELY ANALYTICAL approach to life; this can result in early, highly critical self-analysis. When coupled with his/her perfectionism and the unreasonable expectations of adults, this can lead to identity problems.

However, gifted children can fare well if their giftedness is recognised and they are therefore given a suitable environment which nurtures and supports their unusual talents. If, on the other hand, such an enriched and appropriate environment is not provided, the child is more likely to face problems.

Of especial concern is that some clinicians have put forward the view that gifted children, due to the unusual characteristics they display that relate to their giftedness, are having such characteristics misinterpreted as signs of a psychiatric condition. Such mistakenly diagnosed conditions, they state, include:

  1. Asperger’s syndrome
  2. Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  3. ADHD
  4. ADD
  5. Oppositional defiance disorder
  6. Bipolar disorder

Finally, it should be noted that some research also suggests that some a gifted child may be more likely to suffer (and to be correctly diagnosed with) anorexia and depression (especially existential depression).

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).



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