One of the central tasks of adolescence is to negotiate identity development and gain increased self-awareness. This is important for all adolescents but particularly so for gifted teenagers who often grapple with the integration of their giftedness as an aspect of their being. Acceptance of giftedness with its “tension-laden and seemingly ambiguous aspects of self” (Dillon, 2011) is a complex task particularly as these aspects are so little understood in a world where the gifted being is often “misinterpreted and misunderstood” and there is a general lack of acceptance. Given that many definitions of giftedness suggest that 10% of the population is gifted , there is clearly an abundance of “others who may not understand” and circumstances and experiences where misunderstanding can and does occur.
Gifted children entering the adolescent developmental phase , many of whom experience early onset of adolescence because of their advanced cognitive ability and sensitivity, may find the process of “identity crafting” one of intense intrapersonal self-examination that causes tension and ambiguity in their lives. How these youth integrate the gifted aspects of self into their total self-view is likely to affect their mental health and well-being throughout life.
Three key social and emotional aspects are likely to have a profound impact on the development of the gifted self. These are asynchrony, intensity and perfectionism. It appears that these ways of being offer very specific lenses through which the gifted person experiences their world.
Asynchrony refers to the discrepancy that exists between the cognitive, emotional, social and physical development. This is often particularly noticeable in the young gifted child. I have heard many a parent describe their three or four year old as “an old soul, wise beyond their years” or “three going on thirty”. A child who at the age of 8, functions cognitively like a 12 or 13 year old, is certain to feel a level of frustration when situated in a class of 8 year old average ability peers, for they are likely to have minimal in common in terms of interests, language development and areas requiring cognitive processing. At times, however, the 8 year old self will surface loud and clear, leaving parents, teachers and the often the child, bewildered by their thoughts and behaviours. It is not easy to accept that on one level, this child will be arguing the complexity of sustainability of the planet and in the next instance find him/herself engaged in a life and death battle with a sibling over who gets to sit in the front seat of the car. Both situations are experienced deeply and with spectacular intensity, the second lens through which our gifted child interacts with the world.
Intensity, is the innate tendency to respond an intensified manner to various forms of stimuli both external and internal (Davidson Institute). Gifted children/adolescents often express themselves in extremes. It is all or nothing! When engaged in something which interests them they run on full steam and nothing but their very best will do. Frustration raises its head when the results do not live up to the ideals envisioned by the child/adolescent. Dabrowski (1964) posited that there are five areas of intensity these are, Psychomotor (Physical), Sensual (Sensory), Intellectual, Emotional and Imaginational. Youth who demonstrate psychomotor intensity are often identified while still very young for their extraordinary ability in sporting endeavours. Talent scouted at a very early age they are given every possible opportunity to nurture their development because there is an expectation and belief that with the right support and “systematic training” they will reach an elite level in some form of performance. Through constant and consistent measurement and evaluation, these youth are guided towards fulfilment of potential.
It is noted too when they cease to perform at the ‘expected’ level as I was reminded by a recent comment in The Listener (May, 26, 2012) on Ali Williams, no longer an adolescent but who was a “youngster of promise”. An All Black since 2002, Ali has been identified, in the very recent past, as not “the player he was before the Achilles-tendon injuries sidelined him for two years.” The article goes on to add “This season he has failed to rise above the mediocrity enveloping the Blues” (his current rugby team). Can you imagine the uproar it would cause were a comment such as this to appear on a child’s school report? And yet this “failure to rise above mediocrity” is exactly what is happening to many of our intellectually gifted children in schools in both New Zealand and Australia, due partially to a lack of knowledge, understanding and acceptance of our gifted children, but I digress.
The second area of intensity noted by Dabrowksi (1964) is sensory (Sensual) intensity. Youth with sensory intensity generally display enhanced appreciation for sensory and aesthetic pleasure. These sensitive souls gain immense pleasure through their senses and delight in beautiful objects, sounds, sights, words, music, colour, form and balance. If nurtured these young people are capable of making a significant contribution in the fields of art, music and performance. While psychomotor intensity is readily accepted within the sports mad cultures that exist in Australia and New Zealand and sensory precociousness is somewhat accepted because forward thinking individuals foreshadow a significant artistic or musical contribution in the future, intellectual intensity remains a societal pariah.
Youth with intellectual intensity may find that they are excluded from our increasingly “inclusive” school society. The view that assisting our intellectually able students to continue an ongoing learning trajectory is still viewed by many as “elitist”. Intellectual intensity, the third intensity described by Dabrowski (1964), is an intensified activity of the mind, curiosity, excitability, organisation and often competiveness. The search for truth and understanding drives these young people. They possess a great capacity for reflective thought, love of theory and analysis, preoccupation with logic, conceptual and intuitive integration. These children and adolescents understand complex concepts easily and are exquisitely aware what others are thinking and feeling. They know when they are anything less than unconditionally accepted. They are often intensely self-aware, independent thinking and can be critical all of which can result in giftedness being a double-edged sword for some gifted youth.
The fourth intensity is imaginational intensity, which manifests itself through playfulness of imagination. These young people love the use of imagery and metaphor, invention and fantasy, they can visualise in detail and often have intense dreams and nightmares. When this intensity is not nurtured it can lead to the capacity for living a world of fantasy and the blurring of truth and fiction. These children often have a low tolerance for boredom, they crave novelty and variety.
The final area of intensity is that of emotional intensity. Perhaps, this area is closest to my heart because I have witnessed reactions of gifted children in environments where they have been misunderstood. Emotionally intense youth have strong feelings and emotions both positive and negative. They often experience a wide range of feelings, greater extremes, depth and complexity to their feelings and emotions and a great awareness of others’ feelings. This can lead to strong somatic expressions such as stomachache, nervous perspiration, blushing, sweaty palms, etc. Emotionally intense children and adolescents have the capacity to form strong attachments and relationships as wells as strong emotional ties to places, people, pets and things in general. They may have difficulty adjusting to new environments, are deeply compassionate and responsive to others and can experience deep feelings of loneliness. On the other hand, they are also capable of experiencing intense joy and euphoria.
The final filter of the trio examined in this blog is that of perfectionism, which is expressed as the combination of the desire to be perfect, the fear of not being perfect and the sense that personal acceptance hinges on being perfect. Asynchrony and heightened awareness may combine to create a volatile mix that presents the voice of perfectionism. Often articulated as “I’m not good enough”, “I am only acceptable if I am perfect” and “If I make a mistake there is something shamefully wrong with me” these children can be overwhelmed by feelings of anger, shame, frustration and disillusionment. Perfectionism is a multi-layered construct and not all perfectionism present as restrictive. When this is not the only or dominant voice of the gifted person’s self-making, perfectionism can be a highly motivating factor in the desire for excellence.
So how do we address these complexities? Often the trio of gifted “behaviours” manifest in early adolescence when they become observable and obvious. Like anything in the gifted sphere, there is no one right answer or response. It is critical that those who support gifted youth understand that the process of grappling with these issues is an integral aspect of the individual “authoring the self” (Dillon, 2011). The process of self-making includes constructing the self through negotiating the different internal and external voices. Gifted young people should be supported in developing the understanding that asynchrony, intensity and perfectionism are all key voices in their self-making process. The tension and ambiguity that arises from these “voices” is “normal”, each voice can assist meaning making, integration of giftedness and ultimately self-construction. Grappling with the multiplicity of aspects of self is intrinsically “normal”. This insight must be shared with young gifted adolescents if we are to support them through one of the most critical creations they will embark on in their lives, that of the making of self. Although this process is dynamic and continues across a life span, early adolescents are engaged in laying the foundations.
When the terms “asynchrony, intensity” and “perfectionism” are given negative labels, i.e. “framed as flaws” and are scrutinised clinically and diagnostically there is the distinct possibility that a young person might apply the same logic to themselves and conclude that they too are “flawed” (Dillon, 2011). We who are entrusted to support gifted youth must emphasise that in developing a “healthy self” there is a need to “toggle” between the asynchronous development, intensity and perfectionism as a normal process of self-making. This will tend eliminate some of the pressure that surrounds unrealistic beliefs and expectations. Williams (2007) suggests that if adolescents, and I propose gifted children in general, are released from the yoke of constantly defending themselves they are likely to have more resources at hand to find positive ways to manage in our “average” society. In tandem with this approach, it is also necessary for continued education about giftedness and its complexities.