Pressure, Stress, and the Gifted Child

Although it may seem that gifted students are lucky to have been bestowed with intellect and talent, such a classification can come with problems of its own. In fact, gifted students can experience high levels of stress to excel at everything they do.

Because of their gifts, gifted students also tend to be more perceptive than other children when it comes to picking up on environmental cues, so they may be more sensitive to judgments from others (both real and perceived), as well as sometimes feel overloaded and overwhelmed by information. A lifetime of high expectations can lead gifted students to be extremely hard on themselves as they strive for increasingly higher standards and packed schedules.

Gifted students are usually placed in school environments that are filled with pressure. Although students often need these accelerated tracks to keep them from getting bored in school, the demands of both the coursework and the environment of other gifted students can cause a great deal of stress. Children may work so hard to keep up (and stay ahead) that they begin to burn out from stress—which can be a dangerous state, both physically and mentally. Stress can create a vicious cycle, as it is more difficult to concentrate and pay attention when stressed, so students may experience low performance, leading them to be even harder on themselves. Be on the lookout for significant changes in behavior that indicate burnout and stress, such as:

• Physical symptoms that are often related to stress, such as stomachaches, backaches, and headaches. Other physical symptoms of stress and burnout can include frequent colds and other minor illnesses, and nervous behaviors, such as tics, stuttering, pulling out hair, or skin-picking.
• Negativity or resentment towards school in a child who used to be generally happy or excited about learning.
• Difficulty sleeping, fatigue, or low energy. (Please note that changes in sleeping patterns are a normal part of adolescence, as teenagers tend to prefer to stay up later and sleep later, so tiredness is often a normal part of the life of an adolescent who has a tendency to stay up very late, and then has to be at school very early in the morning.) Concern should arise when children are exhibiting sleeping difficulties without other explanations, or are consistently losing sleep due to worry about excelling in school.
• Extreme irritability, moodiness, insecurity, inability to make decisions, and/or overreaction in the face of events that the child was previously able to handle.
• Acting out through destructive or aggressive behaviors.
• Self-medication with alcohol or drugs.
Some parents may read the list above and feel that all of the points describe behaviors of the typical adolescent. The key in recognizing stress and burnout is to notice major changes in behavior that persist for more than a few weeks, and that seem to be more extreme than other children of the same age.

By Lisa Medoff

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