A gifted teen returns home from school one day with a grade of “C” on a math test. Though he accelerated two grades in elementary school, suddenly his academic performance has slid from stellar to horror.
In this instance, it is difficult for a parent to fully comprehend what is happening, especially if the teen is sullen and non-communicative. Often, however, this event is indicative of a phase of development when the child feels the need to break free from the constant emphasis on his intellectual prowess.
Dealing with the Underachieving Gifted Teenager
Peer Influence on the Gifted Teen
Social issues within his peer group may be at the root of the substandard performance. While it is quite possible that he is experimenting with alcohol or drugs and this is causing the downturn, it may be a reflection of his need to “fit in” with the rest of the group.
A gifted teen who becomes involved with extracurricular activities that are not intellectually oriented, like sports teams, may experience an overwhelming need to comply with the norms of the group. If it is not cool to be overly smart and able to ace every exam, a sudden downturn in grades is often the result.
As the child matures, he will normally outgrow this stage without involving counseling or too much intervention. A parent who suspects this is the reason for lowered performance on tests will do well to have an honest conversation with the teen about the importance of keeping his grades high for college and other logical reasons.
Emotional Problems in the Gifted Teenager
A gifted child is not immune to emotional problems, mental illness and other health issues that will effect his academic performance. Because she puts so much emphasis on her intellectual prowess, if she does not live up to her own or her parents expectations in this regard, it can be devastating to her. Some gifted children who feel pressured by parents, teachers and other adults can develop depression, anxiety disorders and related problems.
The best advice to parents is to let her be. Insulate her from too much pressure and do not add to her own high expectations of academic or intellectual performance. Too much emphasis on one area of life is never a good thing. Balance is very important to good mental health and development.
Find other areas for her to develop her interests and activities. If she has no interest in sports, perhaps drama clubs, dance or even arts and crafts are one way to help balance the load and de-emphasize the obsession with good grades and intellectual ability.
Other Issues Driving Underachievement in the Gifted Teen
If the teen has been subject to trauma of any sort, this can result in underachievement problems. It could be a divorce, loss of a close family member or serious illness that sets off an episode of highly emotional behavior or even a mental breakdown in the gifted child.
Some gifted kids will turn to drugs and/or alcohol to ease the pressures or deal with the pain of issues or events in their lives. Look for clues of drug use including paraphernalia, unusual odors, dilated pupils, etc. Take her to the doctor for an evaluation including a drug test, if there is strong suspicion of drug use. Once it has been established that this is the problem, a detoxification program is often warranted.
Keep the lines of communication open with the child. Express unconditional love for him, even if he seems to reject all efforts at supporting his needs. As always, if the situation gets out of control, contact a family therapist to get through the tough times.
Just like normal kids, gifted kids are just as likely to have episodes of underachievement in adolescence. Determine the root cause of the problem, talk to the child and support his efforts to get well and get the support services he needs when he needs them. Unconditional love from his parents, even when he appears to reject them, means more than anything to a gifted teenager.
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