Even though it’s true that ALL kids are prime targets for the prototypical schoolyard bully, gifted children tend to be among the more susceptible groups of kids who get bullied. Bullying tends to spike at the end of elementary school through middle school then decline in high school. For the gifted child, this period coincides with the onset of social awareness amongst peers which already signifies a struggle with self-confidence – only to be made worse if a bully starts to chip away at what remains.
For gifted children, school is oftentimes a daily challenge filled daily with considerations that run from “Will I fit in today?” to “How will I be embarrassed today?” to “What will go wrong today?” Because many gifted kids already “stand out” due to their high intelligence, good grades, quirkiness or other eccentricities, they can spend a lot of time just trying to be like everyone else. Sometimes this is why it’s hard to tell when a gifted child has become the target of a bully—they simply don’t want to ruffle the waters and point fingers at another person in their life who focuses on them for being different, smarter, or beyond the norm.
In some cases where the gifted child’s shining intelligence or academic excellence is noted, the bully can even be more aggressive as he or she acts out in direct response to his or her own insecurities. This same intelligence, which already makes the gifted child feel isolated, can also perpetuate a hypersensitive reaction to the experience of being a victim.
In 2006, in a study of gifted children who were bullied, Peterson and Ray found that quiet desperation, a sense of helplessness and worthlessness were reported experiences of the children they studied. This silence surrounding the child’s internal pain is something that can be destructive if not uncovered and dealt with productively.
For parents, it’s a good time to be aware and alert for potential things like noticing when or if your child is suddenly acting differently. Make it a habit to ask your child about his or her day and investigate further if you feel they are leaving out information. Talk to your child’s teachers or counselors to assess their opinions on your child’s attitude at school and interaction with others. Watch for signs of anxiety and depression in your child which include shutting down, sudden emotional meltdowns, an avoidance of situations having to deal with school or places outside the home, or nightmares and other sleep disturbances.
If you notice these signs, first and foremost, these children need to feel heard and validated for their experiences. They need to have the experience of being liked and valued by someone other than their families. Finally, they need to have their strengths highlighted to remind them that they are good at something and do indeed matter. If you suspect that your child is being bullied, it is imperative to reach out to your child’s school for help. If your child continues to be bullied, and show signs of distress, seeking professional counseling is recommended.
Dr. Dan Peters, Ph.D., is co-founder of the Summit Center (http://summitcenter.us/), which provides psychological and educational assessments and counseling for children and adolescents, specializing in the gifted, creative, and twice-exceptional.