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Help gifted children learn to form strong social relationships

Help gifted children learn to form strong social relationships

Most gifted children have good peer relations. Their advanced cognitive ability enables them to understand social situations and helps them learn the social skills they need to get along with others. But some gifted children have difficulty forming strong social relationships because they differ from typically developing children in three ways.

First, they usually seek older children or other gifted children as friends because they are more similar to children two to four years older. Second, they often have different expectations for friendships. Typically, they look for intimacy and moral integrity at much earlier ages than other children. Third, gifted teens, in particular, may feel conflicted between a strong desire for achievement and a strong desire to belong to a social group in which high achievement is viewed negatively.

Social relationships are extremely important for well-being. Strong, positive relationships are associated with greater happiness, better quality of life and resilience. A lack of access to others with similar interests, ability and drive has been identified as a risk factor for social and emotional difficulties in gifted children. And poor social support has been linked to a wide range of negative outcomes in both children and adults.

Therefore, it is very important to help gifted children form strong social networks. This is not difficult if we keep in mind some of the social characteristics and patterns that are observed in gifted children. 


Do recognize the friendship needs of children

All children move through four predictable stages of friendships as they grow.
At each stage of friendship, children have changing expectations and abilities for relationship. The following 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.

Gifted children tend to move through these stages earlier than other children. This can pose challenges, especially in schools where groupings are typically based on age, rather than abilities or interests.

Even well-socialized, gifted children may report feeling lonely. Not because they don’t get along with others, but because they can’t find anyone who wants what they want in a friendship. This can be especially troublesome for gifted children in small or rural communities where there are fewer options for access to older friends or other gifted children.

We can imagine the frustration and loneliness a gifted 9-year-old child may feel, who is ready for friendships based on reciprocity, but encounters mostly age peers who are not ready for this type of relationship.  

Do help kids find others with similar interests, ability and drive

One of the best things we can do to help gifted children form strong social networks is improve their access to true peers--or individuals with similar interests, ability and drive.
The more gifted that children are, the more difficult this challenge will be. Most gifted children in America are taught in mixed-ability classrooms, where they are grouped by age. As a result, they may have less opportunity to form close friendships than their typically developing classmates.

A simple way to find true peers is to identify programs or activities that encourage mixed-age grouping. This way, a child has access to children of different ages and interests. In rural communities, 4-H, scouting, faith-based groups, book clubs, chess clubs, and music programs are good bets. In urban centers, Montessori schools, academic or creative clubs and teams, and volunteer programs at museums, hospitals, and businesses are good places to start.

For some children, summer programs that are specially designed for gifted children may provide a lifeline. The connections they make can be strengthened all year via social media. Concurrent enrollment in college courses or early admission to college may help teens who struggle with feelings of isolation.  

Do allow appropriate friendships with older children and adults

Permit kids to have older friends. Once we understand that gifted children generally demonstrate advanced development in their friendship patterns and needs, it becomes easier to allow them appropriate relationships with older children and adults.

Older children and even adults are often more likely to match the cognitive abilities/interests of a gifted child, compared to typically developing age-peers. Of course, this is easier to allow at some stages of development than others. A gifted 4-year-old might prefer to play with 6- and 7-year-olds than with other preschoolers because the older children’s play is a better fit for their cognitive abilities. Their play seems more interesting. But older preadolescent children may not want to include a young child whom they may view as a “baby.” Often, it is parents who must stand in the gap during the preschool years.  

Do set clear limits regarding older friends and media

Set clear limits regarding older friends and the media they are allowed to watch or play. Be sure to communicate these limits to supervising adults.

It is one thing to allow a 15 year old to be close friends with an older high school peer, and quite another to allow a 12 year old to befriend high school kids. We need to allow them access to true peers, while maintaining appropriate boundaries, supervision and guidance.

Don't trust that older youth will know what is appropriate for younger friends. Older friends and even adults may assume that a gifted child’s advanced intellect indicates a readiness to handle more mature social or emotional experiences. But that is usually not the case.

Be sure to communicate to your children and their older friends what the limits and expectations are--and be very specific. For example, you may not want your child riding in a car driven by an adolescent friend, viewing media with mature content or hanging out at the mall. You also may want them home and in bed earlier than their older friends. 

Do consider a grade skip (or two) for highly gifted children

Some children are so bright that trying to meet their cognitive and social needs in the regular classroom is nearly impossible. For such children, it is wise to consider a grade skip--or two.

It is a common misperception that grade skipping is bad for children, but numerous studies have demonstrated both the academic and social benefits of grade skipping for gifted children when they are evaluated carefully.

Consider using the Iowa Acceleration Scale, which is an easy-to-use standardized instrument that takes the guess work out of determining a child’s readiness for a grade skip. It rates the child on a wide variety of criteria in eight domains, including motivation, peer relations and achievement, and yields a rating that indicates how strong a candidate a child is for a grade skip. This information takes the personal bias out of the decision making and helps users make a comprehensive plan that supports the child, either for grade skipping or an alternative intervention. For more information about this scale, see: 


Do not restrict kids to friends their own age

It is important for all children to develop the social skills and attitudes necessary to get along with a wide range of people. But don’t restrict gifted children’s friendships to children their own age. Unless they have good access to gifted age-peers, high ability children will need to form relationships with older children or even adults in order to get some of their friendship needs met. 

Do not stress popularity

Be careful about the messages you send, directly and indirectly, regarding social status and popularity, especially during the upper elementary school years and adolescence.

Some gifted children already feel conflicted about the tension between their need to achieve and their need to belong, and any additional emphasis can make this worse. As a group, gifted children are generally liked by their age peers. Sometimes, they are even more popular than their classmates, although that is less true during adolescence.

Most gifted teens recognize that being talented has a social cost. Girls are more likely than boys to deny their abilities in order to keep and maintain friends. Any emphasis on the importance of popularity or social status may contribute to academic underachievement. Remember that popularity is irrelevant for most people after high school.  

Do not excuse bad behavior

Most gifted children have good interpersonal skills, but there are certainly exceptions. Some may use their intellect to demean, ridicule or bully others. They may not have patience with those who don’t learn as quickly or fail to empathize with classmates who struggle. Repeated success without some disappointments along the way can foster arrogance or conceit. None of this should be tolerated.

Clearly communicate and model your expectations for social behavior. Teach appropriate social skills. Deliver consequences for bad behaviour consistently when it is clear that the child knows better. Under no circumstances should a child’s superior intelligence, creativity or ability be used to justify unacceptable behavior.  

Do not assume others know what is best for your child

Remember that no authority knows your child as well as you do. And nobody cares about your child as much as you do. Well-meaning professionals may be misinformed about the characteristics and needs of gifted children. Be prepared to respectfully share information and disagree when necessary. Seek information and guidance when you need it. Then weigh that information in light of your own values, needs, and resources. Always be your child’s best advocate. 

Jumping cartoon

Gifted children can sometimes have difficulty forming strong social connections because they develop a bit differently than typically developing age-peers. When this happens, gifted children may need help since good social relationships are critical to achievement, health and happiness. 

More expert advice about Raising Gifted Kids

Photo Credits: Portrait of two diligent girls looking at camera at workplace with schoolboys on background by pressmaster via BigStock; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Maureen Neihart, Psy.D.Licensed child psychologist, Associate Professor

Maureen Neihart, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist with more than thirty years’ experience counseling children with special needs and their families. She is co-editor of the text, The Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Children: What do ...

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