Why do gifted children have anxiety disorders?

Today’s question is such a good one. Why is it that most gifted children tend to have an anxiety disorder?

This is so interesting, and I have to tell you, I had the answer all wrong, so I’m really glad someone asked me this question. It gave me the opportunity to dig in and correct my own assumptions.

First, let’s define gifted. And I’m gonna stop here and say that all children have unique and special gifts, right? Right. We know this. But when we’re talking about gifted in this podcast, I’m going to use the definition from the National Association for Gifted Children, which defines giftedness as, “Students with gifts and talents perform—or have the capability to perform—at higher levels compared to others of the same age, experience, and environment in one or more domains. They require modification(s) to their educational experience(s) to learn and realize their potential.”

This is still pretty vague, but it’s what we’re going with. I think we can have a discussion about anxiety and giftedness that will be helpful to you, even if we’re going with a fairly vague description of giftedness.

Now let’s examine whether or not it’s true. Do most gifted children, as we are defining it, have anxiety disorders to research this, I read a paper. I’ll share in the show notes, mental disorders among gifted and non-gifted youth, a selected review of the epidemiology literature.

The, the people who wrote this paper also struggled with the gifted definition and noted that the studies, they’re looking at all use different criteria. So that’s just something to note. And they found that gifted children actually have weight for it, lower levels of anxiety than their non-gifted peers.

I know. That surprised me too. I dug in further and found another study, which again I will link to in the show notes titled Emotional and Behavioral Characteristics of Gifted Children and Their Families, which shows that gifted children who have anxiety also seemed to have better access to the tools to deal with their anxiety.

Giftedness then can be a protective factor. As I thought about it, this echoes my anecdotal experience. I do see a lot of gifted kids with anxiety in my clinical practice, but I also see a lot of gifted kids who make great progress. In my research, I definitely saw a lot of organizations, publications, and articles that assume that gifted children are more anxious than non-gifted children, and I thought that deserved some consideration.

I can’t find any formal research about this, but my guess is that the perception that gifted children are more anxious has to do with our biases about giftedness and about anxiety. Let’s take the opportunity to examine that. I. The fact is anxiety is incredibly common. Anxiety disorders, that is a clinical diagnosis of anxiety, is the most common reason parents seek out mental health treatment for their children.

So it’s not just gifted kids who are showing up with anxiety, it’s all kids. You’ve heard me say this before and I promise you’ll hear me say it again. All the kids I saw in my therapy office were either anxious or angry, and all the angry kids were anxious. In other words, anxiety doesn’t always look like a child who says they feel worried.

Often it looks like behavior issues. Children who have access to language are better able to verbalize what’s happening to them, and so they are less likely to act out. There is a lot of research that backs that up. This is why toddlers are so prone to tantrums. It’s frustrating to not be able to make your experience known and understood as children gain language skills.

Generally speaking, their acting out behavior decreases. Gifted kids are often gifted in areas of communication and language. Therefore, they are more likely to be able to verbalize their anxiety and have it recognized as such. To be clear, these are generalities. There will be gifted kids who melt down and there will be children not identified as gifted, who are able to communicate their anxiety verbally.

But advanced language abilities are more likely to result in children that can communicate their fears and have their anxiety identified as an anxiety. It’s a more adult friendly anxiety. They tell us what’s happening, we’re able to engage with them. Okay. The other thing I think we need to consider is our expectations.

For the children that we identify as gifted, their development tends to be asynchronous. Now, this is true for all kids. A toddler working on their language may have less emotional regulation skills. A preschooler working on potty training may get picky about new foods. When they’re putting their energy in one area, there is less energy For others.

In gifted kids, this may seem more stark because we expect more of them if they’re able to communicate to us with impressive vocabulary and tremendous insight. We might really notice when they’re undone by worries about a tornado watch. We might see this as problematic. If we’re expecting their development to match up across the board.

We might see their anxiety as a deficit worthy of intervention more clearly because we are thinking of them as more emotionally mature than they are. This makes us more likely to label them as anxious to get them a therapist. Now the other thing is, Gifted children tend to sense our expectations and be anxious about those.

I’ve worked with many kids who, once they were identified as gifted experience that identification as pressure, pressure to get better grades than their peers, pressure to keep up with other children in the gifted program with them. In other words, we may unintentionally create more opportunities to be anxious once we’ve identified them as gifted.

I’ll tell you, I have concerns about labeling kids. I’m sure you do too. I think diagnosis and labeling is great when it means that children get access to the services that they need, but children and teens are creating identities and sometimes those appropriate diagnoses and labels end up being trapped.

So I think we need to be thoughtful about it and thoughtful about how we communicate those labels to children. When I talk to children who are in gifted programs and are having some anxiety or experiencing some pressure around that, I tell them that giftedness is not about performance. It’s about capacity, and that being gifted simply means that they get to explore that capacity, not that they have to meet certain benchmarks.

Now, for those kids who have been tested into gifted programs, as more schools are doing and who are aware, That they need to get a certain score in order to access services that feels different. Giftedness then feels like an accomplishment instead of a state of being. And I, I think we need to talk to them about the imperfections of our educational system and how we use certain benchmarks.

And in some ways, it’s kind of arbitrary that when a child can be gifted because they got one point higher, Well, that’s a problem with scale, not a problem with kids. We need to communicate with them about that. I also tell children about asynchronous development because they need permission to be bad at some things.

They need to know. All kids need to know, not just gifted kids that well-Roundedness is a myth. Everybody is better at some things than at other things, and that’s just fine. We can do things because they’re fun or useful, or we find them interesting, or because our school asks us to do them, but it’s okay to not be good at everything.

Finally, giftedness like anxiety tends to run in families and anxiety like water tends to find its own level, which is to say that if you have a parent who is identified as gifted or had a specific experience around giftedness, and if that parent is prone to anxiety, they’re likely to find anxiety as they consider their own child’s experience around giftedness.

Basically, if you’re prone to be anxious, you will be anxious about things; it’s not the things so much as the anxiety. So an anxious parent of a gifted child is going to be anxious about that child and that anxiety may find a nice, comfortable home in that gifted label. Is this making sense? Because now we know that giftedness is not, in fact more highly correlated with anxiety than non-G giftedness.

Yes. It shapes that experience as it shapes all experience, but it’s less of a factor in diagnosis. Then we may first have thought. I would love to hear your thoughts about this, and if it surprised you or if you disagree with anything I’ve said, we can have an interesting conversation about it. Just reach out.