Making Friends- The Struggle of Gifted Teens

I am often asked about how parents can help facilitate and encourage friendships for their gifted child. This is a hard topic to really dive into without some confusion or offending what parents have done to help facilitate friendships. 

Here is the thing (and take this as you will) we can’t expect our children to be friends with everyone their age. As adults, we aren’t friends with everyone that is our same age and we aren’t always getting along with our peers. However, we do need to teach our gifted children appropriate ways to interact with the same age peers and how to be accepting of their peers. It’s a life skill. 

Let’s start with some clarification on the difference between “agemate” and “peer”. If you have a 10-year-old with the intellect of a 13-year-old, you will find that they have very little in common with their “peers”. The flip side of it is that this same 10-year-old might be able to have engaging conversations with older children or adults. This is a distinction that Jim Delisle refers to as “agemate”. An “age mate” is someone who shares your chronological age, whereas a “peer” is someone you interact with because you have common interests or ideas regardless of age. Delisle simply puts it this way, “When you, as an adult, are hosting a party, do you call people first and ask them how old they are? How absurd! The same is true for gifted children: they use common interests and intellect as the barometers of social engagement.” 

Sometimes there is the concern about advancing a child into a class with older peers. Often the concern is the younger student won’t be accepted by their age mates or their peers. They actually do quite well. Older peers will let the younger student know if a behavior is not appropriate and this actually helps advance the gifted child in their social skills. 

A key thing to keep in mind,gifted students gravitate to other gifted children that are their same age – like a magnet. Some students feel isolated before they are identified as gifted, so once they are in classes with gifted age mates they feel like they belong. “Water seeks its own level… and so does intellect”- Jim Delisle 

Highly Gifted Children/Teens and Friends 

When it comes to our highly gifted children, there is a correlation that some settings will be less than optimal for their socialization and emotional needs. In a study by Hollingworth, they noted gifted students with an IQ over 160 tend to internalize any social/emotional issues they are having. Gifted students look mature and adjusted on the outside, they are actually experiencing feelings like loneliness, isolation, and peer difficulties. The most difficult age for this is seen between the ages of four to nine. 

One of the contributing factors for this is the child might be struggling to develop to the mental age of their peers in those early years. Now remember our definition of peer is someone you interact with because you have common interests or ideas regardless of age. This means that there is a big difference between social and cognitive development. So the child may be less mature than an age peer, yet far ahead intellectually. 

One way to work on this with these highly gifted children is help them understand how to initiate and participate in an activity in progress. This is hard for these children because they are unsure of how to reciprocate the relationship with age mate peers; especially in the early years. Create ways to help your child learn how to approach or initiate an activity with age mate  peers are interested in. You can do this through role play at home or even practice at a local park they feel comfortable at. This will allow them to try something new with peers and start to  work on forming those bonds of friendship. 

Tips of Keeping and Making Friends

The Gifted Teen Survival Guide  focuses on peer relationships for gifted teens and young adults, but a lot of these tips apply to young gifted children as well. 

  1. Reach out
    • Practice saying “hello” or smiling when in public. Simple gestures go a long way  
  2. Find ways to get involved 
    • Help your child find activities that would interest them, try to find above grade level activities. 
  3. Share interests with others that express similar interests 
    • Gifted children tend to focus on only what they like and have a hard time deviating away from those interests. Practice with your child on how to ask questions about a peer or age mate’s interests. 
  4. Be a good listener
    • Show your child how to look at others when they are listening, help them learn how to pay attention to what others are saying in a conversation 
  5. Risk sharing about yourself
    • Help your child learn how to express their interests in, their talents, and how to advocate for those things in the classroom. 
  6. Don’t show off
    • There is telling others about your abilities and then there is bragging. Make sure you also help your child learn to appreciate and accept the abilities and talents of others too. 
  7. Be honest 
    • Help your child tell the truth about what they believe in and what they stand for, but help them learn to be sincere in their honesty. 
  8. Be Kind 
    • The truth doesn’t have to hurt. Help your gifted child to be tactful in their honesty and their sharing. 
  9. Avoid using your friends as a sounding board for problems
    • Help your child include others in the good times, too. No one likes to be used only when someone needs something from us. Our children need to know that they can have friendships for all of their good and bad times. 
  10. Do your share of the work 
    •  You need to help your child learn how to make some of the plans and make decisions for play dates, but they also need to learn how to be open to new ideas or activities. 
  11. Be accepting 
    • Not all of your friends have to think and act like you. Gifted children/teens/ adults have a really hard time with this. We need to show our children how to accept and value others for who they are rather than shunning them for being different. We are all different! Embrace it! 

And finally- the most important of all: 

  1. Learn to recognize the so-called friends you can do without. 
    • You have to help your child recognize genuine friendships versus disingenuous friendships. Our children want friends so badly sometimes that they are willing to put up with people who treat them poorly. One way to have the conversation with your student is to ask them how they feel after being around them. This simple question will help them analyze their feelings towards friends if they are struggling to feel valued by others. 

In the end… 

As parents, it is common to struggle when you feel like your children aren’t making or maintaining friendships. There is a tendency to worry about what is wrong with your child or if you taught them well. As a parent, I have to remind myself I have done the best I can and I am always going to be there to help them when they are unsure or fail. 

Give yourself some grace. Try to use some of these ideas with your child and if all else fails just try to role play different scenarios with your child. 

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