If you are identified as gifted you have a cohort of roughly 2% of the population. Gifted people are gifted in different ways, and differ even within their level and type of giftedness. Those identified as “gifted” may differ dramatically from “highly gifted people” and highly gifted people may differ greatly from “profoundly gifted people.” Furthermore, 14% of the gifted population are identified with a learning difference or disability.[1]  These statistics confirm that it is extremely difficult to find someone who truly gets you in this world when you are gifted or twice exceptional. Rarely finding someone with whom you can relate or who makes you feel understood, inevitably leads to loneliness.

I remember when my kids were little I used to say, “you’re so lucky because no matter where you are, you always have your magnificent, creative, funny, interesting brain that will keep you entertained.” That was the best I could do. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to find a peer who could relate to their “out of the boxness,” their surprisingly touching connection to the environment, or share their existential thoughtfulness. I suspected that friends would be few and far between who understood their seemingly sensitive reactions to stimuli or guffaw at their quick and witty connections and punny observations.  When my son was in eighth grade his speech language pathologist asked me if he ever had a peer with whom he could truly relate.

The cruel irony is the gifted extrovert who craves social interaction but lacks the skills necessary to forge healthy connections. I often think about gifted and 2e introverts and whether some of their preferred silence is due to the infrequency with which other human beings understand them. In the case of the hopeful extroverts, in some ways, it’s even more painful to watch them crash and burn in social situations since they so desperately desire social connection.

Gifted and 2e kids become gifted and 2e adults and the statistics don’t change. Hopefully by adulthood they find at least one person with whom they can share their authentic inner thoughts and reactions. But, it’s possible that they learned as children to hide their true selves, and therefore risk forgetting how to be genuine with anyone – including themselves – therefore forging inauthentic relationships. All is not lost for those adults living a synthetic life, but it takes work to find and honor their true selves and begin developing connections and relationships based on who they really are.

When they’re young, gifted and 2e kids learn to keep to themselves or become actors to emulate what their peers say, do and like, so it’s less painful to go to school. They become true to others and not to themselves and eventually this leads to deep loneliness, a reliance on others to determine their thoughts and values, and self-doubt (“why do I feel so different” “why don’t I care about things my peers care about” “why doesn’t anyone care about what I care about?”)

In academics, not feeling understood or needing to process information differently leads to underachievement. Research shows that 25% of gifted people are underachievers, that they quit trying because nothing they do seems to lead to any measurable success or satisfaction.[2]  Children with an IQ of 133 appear in the population at a ratio of approximately 1:40. In general, an elementary school teacher could expect to encounter a child like this only every couple of years.[3]  So, this means that gifted and 2e kids are anomalies to teachers – further setting them apart and setting them up to fail if their sensitivities, thoughts or comments are misunderstood as attention seeking behaviors, rude or disrespectful.

Adding insult to injury, when underachievement occurs educators and parents often focus on remediation rather than talent development or a strengths-based approach. Emphasis on challenges results in a downward spiral where the child begins to only see his struggles and believes his strengths are not worth cultivating, or worse, that he doesn’t have any strengths.  Every teacher who has ever thought “I cannot enrich or engage this child until his behavior is under control” lost the opportunity to truly reverse the behavior. More consequences lead to more disillusionment and simultaneous feelings of negative self-worth and despondency. Focusing on talent, abilities and strengths develops resilience for kids to deal with their difficulties. The same is true for adults, and employers would do well to focus on their gifted and 2e employees’ abilities before discounting their contributions to the workplace.

People need to connect, we are social beings. We look to relate via similar interests. For gifted people – these interests are often not the interests of same-aged peers. This is why we see so many gifted and 2e kids connecting with adults. Human beings also connect over similar emotional responses. For gifted and 2e people these emotional responses are often “off the charts,” a much deeper, guttural reaction to the whole spectrum of emotions. These are reactions beyond the control of the gifted and 2e person so they try hard to quash their emotions. Have you ever spent an entire day trying to not be yourself? Lonely. Exhausting. Confusing. Demoralizing. When they get home they (kids or adults) are finally in a ‘safe’ place and often let loose on those they love because they can. It’s not rational, it’s not fair, it’s not fun, but it’s what they do because they’ve depleted their reserve.

Parents need bottomless vaults of empathy. They need to set aside their obsession with ‘respect’ and ‘you’re the child, I’m the grown up’ ways of thinking. They need to give space. Talk less. Listen more, even if this means sitting next to your child listening to silence while the debris in his head settles like snow in a snow globe.  This does not mean letting our kids “get away with anything.” It means strategically waiting to engage, allowing our kids to weather the storms in their heads, encouraging strategies like exercise, mindfulness, and creating opportunities for our children to shine and immerse themselves in an activity they truly love.

For spouses and employers, it means noticing and acknowledging what your gifted or 2e adult loved-one or colleague does right and well. It means letting him assist you or lead with things he is good at doing. It means sharing how you feel with your spouse or employee and having open conversations about needs and wants and honoring theirs and your own.

The best scenario is addressing gifted or 2e people’s emotional, intellectual and social needs when they are school-aged, in a holistic, child-centered approach. Providing a safe environment where the child can take risks is how we encourage him to be himself and feed his soul.  The back-up plan is to understand the gifted and 2e child all grown up – the gifted and 2e adult at home and in the workplace.  Addressing this adult is like addressing their childhood, working together to uncover years of hiding behind what other people wanted or expected, to rid oneself of self-doubt and deprecation in order to focus on the true person for who he is and embracing and celebrating his contributions at home and at work.

[1] Rogers, Karen B., Chapter 6: “Thinking Smart About Twice Exceptional Learners: Steps for Finding Themand Strategies for Catering to Them Appropriately.” Dual Exceptionality. Ed. Catherine Wormald and Wilma Vialle. Australia: University of Wollongong Printery, 2011, pp. 57-70

[2] Adapted from The Gifted Kids Survival Guide: A Teen Handbook, Galbraith, Judy and Delisle, Jim, 2011.

[3] Gross, Miraca Exceptionally and Profoundly Gifted Students: An Underserved Population, http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/underserved.htm.