Identity Conflicts in Gifted Adolescents

By the Duke University Talent Identification Program

Identity formation, a major event in adolescence, is the process by which individuals define themselves. It involves exploring the questions “Who am I becoming?” and “What will I do with my life?” Like gender, race, ethnicity, and class, giftedness is an aspect of identity. For gifted adolescents, it defines, in part, who they are and who they are becoming.

As the need to belong increases during adolescence, gifted teens may struggle to establish a cohesive sense of self. The world rarely tolerates or appreciates extreme differences, and it frequently gives unsound feedback to individuals with exceptional talent. Some gifted adolescents experience conflicts when they encounter contradictory expectations about what they should value and what goals they should pursue. They may struggle to determine what it means to be intelligent and female, to express pride in their culture and achieve at high levels, or to be masculine and creative.

Many gifted teens are forced to resolve mixed messages. For instance, many adolescent gifted girls are sensitive to such messages as “Be smart, but not too smart”; “Compete, but be nice”; and “Earn good grades, but be popular.” Gifted teens from African American or other minority groups may be influenced by messages like “Achieve, but don’t act white”; “Succeed, but cooperate”; and “Get the best education you can, but don’t abandon your community.” Some gifted boys may struggle to resolve such messages as “Be sensitive, but be strong”; “Care deeply, but don’t get too emotional”; and “Express yourself, but act like a man.” Gifted adolescents may be led to perceive high achievement or ability as a betrayal of their cultural, social, or racial affiliations. They may feel pressure to reject their talents and differences in order to maintain a sense of belonging and identity in their social group. Some gifted adolescents cope by underachieving, withdrawing, or resisting challenges.

Maintaining high achievement therefore requires a strong sense of self. How can parents help gifted adolescents establish a healthy identity that includes valuing their exceptional abilities? The first step is to recognize and acknowledge societal and cultural messages that cause conflicts, discomfort, or confusion in gifted adolescents. Acknowledgment helps reduce the dissonance, externalize the problem, and normalize the conflict. Parents can help adolescents see that such messages are a societal phenomenon and affect many people from different groups. For many teens, it is useful to hear from young adults who are successfully sorting out mixed messages in their own lives. It can also be beneficial to provide gifted adolescents with direct instruction in the social skills necessary for achievement across social contexts. Communication skills for and attitudes about addressing issues of power, authority, control, self-control, and conflict resolution are particularly relevant.

—Maureen Neihart, PsyD

Maureen Neihart, a clinical psychologist in private practice, has worked with gifted children and their families for more than 20 years.

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