The Gifted Teen: Unexpected Mental Health Challenges

There’s something peculiar about the way we think about intelligence. Typically, students take several standardized tests that together yield a score, which is what most people know as the Intelligence Quotient (IQ). The average or median of these tests is 100 with 95% of the population falling between 70 and 130.

A Gifted Teen

The socially popular thought is that any child or adolescent with an IQ higher than 130 must have it made. That teen will be able to breeze through school, tie their shoes with one hand, and be so ahead of their peers that their life is destined to be successful.

However, this is definitely not the case. In recent years, therapists, school administration, teachers, parents, and others have begun to discover emotional and psychological concerns of the gifted child. It appears that gifted child has been severely misunderstood for many years. Contrary to popular belief, gifted teens do have problems, needs, and concerns just like other children. In fact, they have psychological and emotional concerns that are unique to them because they are gifted in the first place.


For many years, a child’s IQ score defined the giftedness of a child. However, researchers argue that intelligence cannot be narrowed down to one score. Instead, giftedness has been more recently defined by looking at the many facets of intelligence. Susan K. Johnsen provides a definition of the gifted child in her book Identifying Gifted Children: A Practice Guide:

Students, children, or youth who give evidence of high performance capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop such capabilities.

Specific Impairments

It is becoming evident that giftedness in a child has an influence on their psychological growth. The level of impact on a child’s functioning depends on their type of giftedness, attitude, values, personality temperament, life experiences, and how well his or her needs are being met. However, the research is clear that gifted children have an intensified capacity for thinking and feeling with vivid imaginations and enhanced creative ability. Being “different” in this way can lead to feelings of jealousy, competitiveness, and resentment from peers and higher expectations from parents and teachers. Some of the specific impairments that a gifted teen might experience include:

  • Difficulty with peer relationships
  • Refusal to do routine, repetitive assignments
  • Inappropriate criticism of others
  • Lack of awareness regarding how their unique ability is affecting others
  • Not feeling challenged at school
  • Depression as a result of boredom
  • Anxiety as a result of feeling different
  • Difficulty receiving constructive criticism
  • Hiding intellectual and creative abilities
  • Resisting authority, nonconforming
  • Excessive competitiveness
  • Isolation from peers
  • Frustration tolerance is very low
  • Poor study habits

Depression & Anxiety 

For a gifted teen, particularly, he or she might likely experience high levels of stress and anxiety from feeling different than their peers. Because adolescence is the time of life when social interaction and acceptance from peer groups is important, feeling different can lead to feelings of inadequacy, depression, anxiety and stress.

According to the SENG organization, Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted, there is research that indicates the tendency for gifted teens to be more prone to depression, given their differences from other children, which might contribute to unusual social and emotional challenges that other teens might not have. Gifted teens might be more sensitive, tend to be perfectionists, and have high levels of energy. These traits might contribute feeling so different that they cannot socially or emotionally connect with others, leading to a sense of loneliness or isolation.

At the same time, SENG also points out that gifted teens typically want to hide their depression. Gifted adolescents are often very sensitive and can feel shame for not being able to identify the source of their feelings and for feeling like a failure socially and emotionally.


Although at first glance, children and adolescents who are gifted might appear to have the skills and abilities to succeed, their intellectual and/or creative gifts can cause unexpected concerns. Fortunately, as the needs of a gifted teen is becoming more and more evident, the mental health community is learning how to meet those needs and provide support for them to live fulfilling and meaningful lives.



Schuler, Patricia A. “Gifted Kids at Risk: Who’s Listening?” SENG. 2013. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.

“Intellectual Giftedness.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Feb. 2014. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.

Grobman, J. (2009). A psychodynamic psychotherapy approach to the emotional problems of exceptionally and profoundly gifted adolescents and adults: A psychiatrist’s experience. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 33, 106-125.


Further Reading