How Being A Gifted Kid Affects You As An Adult
by JR Thorpe
young girl with glasses reading a book
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Were you one of those kids with the "gifted" label? Maybe you did a test, or went through a series of workshops, or had a few meetings with parents and teachers, and came out the other side with your giftedness on file. Maybe it led to better educational opportunities, or social difficulties, or both. Either way, being gifted shaped your adult life, even if you simply ignored it after high school or college and plowed ahead with whatever you wanted to do.

Giftedness (defined as being in the top three percentile of intelligence, or as pushing the roof of IQ tests, which max out at 170) is an interesting thing, and it can lead to unexpected consequences as you grow into your precocity and look beyond high school test scores.

Here's one anecdotal thing I've learned about life as an adult after gifted childhood: gifted people can flock together. I'm in what's called a "gifted marriage" (both people have the designation), most of my friends were in gifted programs at school or seen as high achievers, and we all have our own weird stories about how we fit in, stuck out, went bonkers trying to be perfect, and generally wondered why we hadn't got a Nobel Prize by 25. (Maybe that one's just me.) Giftedness isn't a curse we carry into adulthood, but it does definitely change the game a bit, according to science. Here's how.

You May Be More Likely To Have Specific Emotional Problems

This is an interesting one, and it's disputed. Kids designated as gifted have long been thought to be more at risk of emotional issues, and to carry some of them into adult life, because of various factors: the National Association for Gifted Children, for instance, identifies "heightened awareness, anxiety, perfectionism, stress, issues with peer relationships, and concerns with identity and fit" as potential serious issues. Being told you're carrying around a brainload of excellence, and the attendant performance and social issues, logically may leave people more open to concerning problems.

But Dr. Joan Freeman, one of the world's leading experts on gifted children, raises a few reasons why this might happen: teachers and parents pay more attention to gifted kids and their potential for "emotional disturbance," and "poor emotional balance" is often part of the way we assess how gifted kids might be. She calls the idea that gifted kids might be less emotionally well-adjusted than others a "dangerous stereotype." While a few issues, like hypersensitivity and a pervasive belief in perfectionism, may cause worries into later life, they don't dictate the majority of experience in gifted kids.

Dr. James Webb, writing on the disagreement for the National Register Of Health Service Psychologists, does point out that various studies have found links between childhood giftedness and adult depression, anxiety, relationship issues, and eating disorders. But he also highlights research about what characteristics might mean gifted kids grow up to be troubled adults: a high level of internal drive, serious emotional intensity and moral concern, and a mismatch between physical and emotional development are among them.

Gifted adults may become frustrated with slower peers, ask too many questions, get annoyed when they're bored, find the ignorance of others irritating, and have too many interests (we'll get to that one in a minute). Whether or not you grew from a gifted kid into a troubled adult, then, is a matter of a bunch of factors, from your home life to the precise calibration of your talents.

You May Be More Likely To Choose Your Path According To Social Pressures

This is an interesting one: it seems that, according to a study done in 2009, many gifted kids are "shaped" into their future paths not only by their own wishes and aptitudes but by what society believes gifted people should grow up to do. The study looked at 800 high school students, both gifted and non-gifted, and examined their ambitions and what they felt they should do with their lives. It found that gifted kids were more likely to have quite low social self-esteem, and to channel their abilities into one particular field, usually "applied or prestigious subjects," because it's what society expects of people with the label. They weren't necessarily allowed to go off and figure out paths on their own.

You May Have More Difficulty Picking Between Passions

There's a concept in the study of career guidance when it comes to gifted adolescents and college students: "multipotentiality." It's partly the brainchild of expert Professor Barbara Kerr, and refers to a tendency among some gifted people to have gifts and interests in multiple areas, which can have interesting consequences: an aversion to choosing a particular career path, for instance. "Multipotentiality," wrote Kerr in 2003, "is defined as the ability to select and develop any of a number of diverse career options. Gifted students are often multipotential because they possess a high level of general ability, which makes them capable of performing capably in almost any intellectual endeavor."

Some gifted kids don't have this problem; the ones with talents focused on one area, like science or math, will likely not experience it as an issue and might figure out what they want to do (or be pressured into it) early on. There are downsides to deciding on life goals too early, though; the National Research Center On The Gifted & Talented explains that research shows if a "career decision is made early due to cognitive maturation without synchronous emotional maturation, the [gifted] adolescent may not be able to consider the long range planning, persistence, and self-sacrifice needed to achieve the intended career goal." In other words, being too focused or too scattered both have their downsides for gifted people in adulthood.

You May Have A Hard Time Turning Giftedness Into Adult Achievement

This is, for gifted kids, usually the biggest existential challenge: the ability to live up to the label, and to fulfill their "potential." In some areas it seems to work well. Vanderbilt University's long-running Study Of Mathematically Precocious Youth, for instance, has found that kids who get strong test scores early (and get the gifted label as a result) are usually highly successful academically and in business later in life. That may, however, be a finding confined to STEM subjects and others where the linear progression of achievement is pretty clear. Dr. Freeman's 2013 work, which surveyed gifted children over many years into adulthood, paints a wider picture; some people, she writes, "rose to the challenge of the label and thrived on it, while others felt they could never live up to the image. Others simply ignored their potential, fitting in with the local culture which did not have a place for giftedness. The unlabelled but equally able gifted had less distress."

Being "gifted" may lead to fear of failure, avoidance of risk-taking, impossibly high expectations, or other issues in adult life, or you may just try to forget the label as soon as possible.