How to understand the socioemotional needs of your gifted teenager

There is plenty of research on the socioemotional needs of gifted adolescents and how important it is for these needs to be met. A parent can conduct a simple internet search to figure out why giftedness seems like less of a “gift” and more of a burden when it comes to negative socioemotional characteristics of gifted teens.

Gifted adolescents go through a period where their cognitive development is dynamic, which allows them to understand the world in a more sophisticated manner. This incredible growth in intellect doesn’t necessarily equate to the same growth socially or emotionally. This can be exceedingly difficult to reconcile and can lead to lack of self-confidence, difficulty forming relationships, disorganization, isolation and narcissism.


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  • model self-confidence
  • help gifted teens establish friendships
  • work with your teen to improve organization skills
  • understand the dangers of social isolation
  • recognize the difference between narcissism and being intellectually gifted

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  • exacerbate your teen’s lack of self-confidence
  • force your teen to develop relationships
  • enable teens by organizing their messes
  • ignore isolation in teens
  • overlook the importance of encouraging your teen’s gifts

Dr. Joanna D. Simpson‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do model self-confidence

Self-esteem and self-confidence come from many places, but what might be the most important is knowing and accepting yourself. Introspection is not common in children, which is why they compare themselves to others so frequently.

With gifted children and teens, these comparisons can quickly become a list of differences from their peers and family members. In adolescence, different is not always good. Encourage your gifted teen to value differences seen in others and her/himself. Valuing is more than understanding and casually accepting differences. Associating value with differences in people will help gifted teens to see the positive in what makes them different. Remember to model this. We sometimes forget how critical we are of our own differences and that our teens are listening, even when it seems they are not.

Do help gifted teens establish friendships

Adolescence is a time when relationship building is critical. With gifted teens, this can be difficult because they may not find friends their age who are intellectually compatible with them. This becomes worrisome for parents because teens may seek out relationships with older people.

Encourage your teen to have a wide circle of friends who they may have small things in common with, such as interests, ability or drive, rather than looking for one particular friend who they have everything in common with. Also, since giftedness often comes with exceptional perception, you may need to remind your gifted teen that not everyone is as highly attuned to the details of the world as they are. What they may see as relationship ending, such as not returning a text quickly enough or cancelling plans, may not be as it seems.

Teach your teen about reciprocity in relationships–the give and take that is necessary to maintain a friendship. Consider helping your teen establish friendships by looking into associations or organizations targeted for gifted teens, such as summer or weekend camps, early entrance college programs or support groups. Check out the Davidson Institute for Talent Development for many opportunities available for gifted teens to socialize with like- minded peers.

Do work with your teen to improve organization skills

Are there books, art supplies, magazines, tools and decorations strewn about on your teen’s shelves, dresser, nightstand and desk? Disorganization can actually become a habit that is difficult to break.

Consider working with your teen to chart what has happened in life for the last year or two. Make note of times when the disorganization has seemed particularly bad, and see if you can draw any conclusions from what was happening in his/her life and the level of disorganization in the room.

It is also helpful to make a list of the ways your teen is organized. Work together to try and figure out why your teen’s purse or backpack is meticulously organized, but why this is not carrying over to other areas of his/her life. Encourage your teen to find ways to be more organized. Purchase organizational tools or shopping with them.

Do understand the dangers of social isolation

Isolation is quite a bit different than solitude, and many teens crave solitude. But when that solitude turns into withdrawing from the world entirely, or only going out for school or work with no sign of relationships or friendships, your teen may be exhibiting symptoms of social isolation.

Since isolation is often a sign of depression, and depression is something that requires treatment, it would be prudent to seek help from a psychologist. The middle or high school your child attends may have a psychologist on staff, which can be one resource for you. However, it is better to seek out a psychologist who specializes in giftedness because isolation also can mean many other things.

Since the risks of depression are great and the signs vary, err on the side of caution and seek the help of a psychologist in this situation. If your teen is not experiencing depression, the psychologist can still provide helpful resources and tips on how to work through the isolation your teen is experiencing. Check out the list of psychologists who specialize in giftedness at the site, Hoagies’ Gifted.

Do recognize the difference between narcissism and being intellectually gifted

Many gifted children are actually misdiagnosed as narcissistic and receive treatment from psychologists because there is no social mechanism to support the intellectually gifted.

While physically and athletically gifted individuals are given trophies and medals to proudly display, intellectually gifted are called narcissists when they do the same. Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is just that–a disorder. You receive treatment for it as you would any other disorder. A gifted teenager who is proud of his/her intellectual accomplishments is not any more narcissistic than the athlete who is proud of winning a race.

Make sure your teen understands the importance of good sportsmanship, related to his/her intellectual accomplishments, and how sportsmanship ties to relationship building, which is very important at this age. If you do feel your teen is suffering from NPD, seek treatment from a psychologist who specializes in giftedness.

Dr. Joanna D. Simpson‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not exacerbate your teen’s lack of self-confidence

Remember that gifted teens are already comparing themselves to pretty much everyone they encounter, so it is not helpful for you to also compare them to others. Questions such as, “Why can’t you be more like her?” only diminish their self-confidence because it shows that you, too, see them as someone who needs improvement.

Also, trying to build up your teen by tearing someone else down, such as saying, “You are much smarter than her or prettier than her, so you should be more self-confident,” is not a healthy way to build self-esteem and can actually do more harm than good if you end up contributing to a case of NPD. Sure, narcissists seem to have great self-esteem because they are constantly talking about how much better they are than everyone else. But research shows that people with NPD actually have incredibly low self-esteem and lash out at others as a way to make themselves feel better.

Do not force your teen to develop relationships

If your teenagers are having difficulty forming relationships, it is unlikely that they will appreciate their parents seeking out relationships for them. Well-meaning parents who try to connect their teenager with teens they know from other places often end up causing their gifted teen to withdraw further.

Don’t set them up on blind dates–unless they have asked for you to do this–and remember that your teen is too old for a play date. It is more embarrassing for your parent to try and force someone to be your friend, than it is to have no friends at all. And although this is certainly not your intention, this may be how your teen sees it.

Friendships are something your teen will have to build on their own. Sure, you can set up the situation–by sending them to a camp, school or institute where they are likely to meet people with similar interests–but inviting your dentist’s daughter over because you know she is the same age as your daughter is probably not the best idea.

Do not enable teens by organizing their messes

One of the worst things you can do to help disorganized teenagers is enable them by continuously organizing their messy areas. If you are always going to clean it up, there is no reason for the teen to learn organizational skills. Ignoring the problem and hoping they will learn to organize themselves once they move out of the house is not helpful either. You must help your teen learn to take action to promote organized behavior.

Do not ignore isolation in teens

Isolation is tricky because there is a fine line between solitude and isolation. Your teen may not be asocial, and may just be an introvert, which is perfectly normal and healthy. If you think that your teenager is isolating him/herself, you need to seek treatment with a psychologist specializing in gifted kids. The worst thing you can do in this scenario is to ignore it, brush it off as a phase and let what might be depression get worse.

Do not overlook the importance of encouraging your teen’s gifts

If you suspect that your gifted teenagers are being narcissists in a particular situation, do not insult them by calling them a narcissist. It is more likely that your children are excited about their intellectual gift and there is very few places they can share that excitement outside of their home. At school and with friends, they are often accused of bragging and are encouraged to hide their gifts because of it.

Showing their gift to you–someone who will accept them unconditionally–is not a sign of narcissism, it is a “look at me, mom/dad, watch this!” moment. Of course, if the excitement about an intellectual achievement comes with insulting others and general egotistical behaviors, you may need to seek out a psychologist specializing in giftedness.


There are many resources available to parents looking to help their gifted teenager deal with negative socioemotional issues. Mostly, it takes a little education on behalf of the parent to understand giftedness and the perspective of their teen. You will notice that most of the advice here suggests that there be a conversation to figure out the source of the problem, and then possible solutions. This is typical for any parent/child relationship–gifted or not.

The biggest difference is that some of the characteristics gifted teens may exhibit also can be signs of disorders that need immediate treatment. For the gifted, this type of treatment comes from a specialist who knows about what it is that makes them different because a specialist will approach your teen with an asset-based mentality, recognizing that this difference is good.

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