Finding True Peers

By the Duke University Talent Identification Program

Developing and maintaining friendships is an important aspect of any child’s development. However, for many gifted kids this can be a struggle. Using the term “true peers,” the first of the friendship articles discusses the struggle gifted kids may have in forming and maintaining friendships. For gifted children, true peers are probably not the same chronological age as gifted children; gifted children often seek friendships with older children.

The friendships of gifted children often challenge parents, because they differ from those of average-ability children in several ways.

First, because gifted children are similar in cognitive and social development to children who are two to four years older, they usually seek older children or other gifted children as friends. Second, their advanced maturity means that they often have different expectations for friendships, looking for intimacy and moral integrity at much earlier ages than other children. Third, gifted children may feel conflict between a high motivation for achievement and a strong desire to belong to a particular social group in which high ability is not valued or is viewed negatively.

Helping your child find the right friends is important, because relationships develop healthy self-esteem, strong social skills, and positive attitudes toward school and achievement. They help children deal with the everyday stressors of life, reduce their anxiety and loneliness, and foster in them a sense of well-being. Many studies have shown that children with strong social support networks are more resilient.

Children’s views of friendship develop in stages (ages are approximate):

  • Play partnership (ages 4–7): Friends play cooperatively and share belongings.Interest sharing (ages 6–8): Friends discuss likes and dislikes.
  • Helping (ages 8–10): Friends help each other.
  • Reciprocity (ages 11–15): Friends give and receive affection and support.
  • Intimacy (ages 16+): Friends are perceived as making a lasting commitment based on trust and unconditional acceptance.

The last two stages are more complex and are characterized by an awareness that relationships require give-and-take. In her study of conceptions of friendship with 700 average-ability, gifted, and highly gifted children ages 5–12, Miraca Gross noted that the more gifted a child is, the more quickly he or she passes through these stages. A gifted child may be looking for more mature friendships when his or her age mates are looking for play partners, for example. Indeed, in Gross’s study, exceptionally and profoundly gifted girls ages 6–7 already displayed conceptions of friendship that do not develop in children of average ability until age 11 or 12.

Children with similar interests, ability, and drive, not necessarily those similar in age, are the true peers of gifted children. This means that a gifted four-year-old would probably rather play with six- and seven-year-olds than with other preschoolers. But the older children may not want to include the younger one, whom they may view as a “baby.” As a result, young gifted children often experience social isolation.

Parents often hurt for their children when they see them longing for a best friend. Parents of middle- and junior-high-school-aged children may struggle with their attraction for hanging out with high-school-aged children. Parents must find ways to allow their gifted children access to true peers while providing an appropriate level of supervision and guidance.

Some tips for dealing with older friends:

  • Set clear limits regarding television programs and movies that your child is allowed to watch (or video games that he or she can play) with friends and communicate these limits to supervising adults.
  • Encourage your child to talk with you about their friends.
  • Do not allow your child to ride in a car driven by a teenager.
  • Establish a curfew.
  • Prohibit rough play.
  • Teach your child strategies for dealing with drugs, alcohol, and sexual material.

Gender differences in the developmental stages of friendship in children of all ability levels has also been observed. Since girls tend to progress through the stages faster and earlier than boys, some young gifted boys prefer their companionship. Gifted adolescent girls, however, tend to minimize their abilities in order to improve their sense of belonging. As a result, they compromise their academic achievement by “dumbing down” to fit in.

Although the attraction to be friends with older youth is common for most gifted children, gifted children with ADHD or specific learning disabilities tend to lag behind their age group in social and emotional skill development. This poses significant challenges for educational placement and peer relationships. For instance, the gifted ADHD middle school boy may be able to keep up with his gifted classmates cognitively, but his social immaturity may annoy them, particularly since gifted children tend to have higher expectations for social behavior.

Research shows that one of the most helpful things parents can do to promote the healthy social and emotional development of their gifted children is to improve their children’s access and exposure to true peers. The more gifted a child is, the greater this challenge, and the more the child may feel that other friendships are missing something.

How can you help your gifted children find true peers? The key is to locate programs and events that encourage mixed-age grouping so that they can interact with children of various ages and interests. For example, in rural areas, 4-H, Scouting, faith-based groups, book clubs, chess clubs, and music programs are good bets. In more populated areas, Montessori schools, academic or creative clubs and teams, and volunteer programs at museums, hospitals, and businesses are good places to start.

Programs especially designed for gifted children may be helpful: summer or weekend camps for children of high ability, early entrance college programs, or support groups such as state and local gifted associations or organizations like the Davidson Institute for Talent Development. Gifted children blossom when they have true peers for friends. Their enthusiasm and energy are contagious as they spur one another on to greater achievement, leadership, and creativity. They are more willing to take realistic risks and reach for higher goals in this company. They develop a better understanding of themselves and of their role in the world around them. They are happy, excited about life, and eager to enjoy it.

—Maureen Neihart, PsyD

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