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Adolescence

How Do Gifted Adolescents See Themselves?

New research finds four faces of giftedness.

Key points

  • New research suggests there are four general profiles of gifted adolescents: humanitarians, politicians, regulators and stabilizers.
  • These groups have different personality traits, emotions, and relationships.
  • It’s important that gifted people, who become followers and leaders, are afforded opportunities to become constructive members of society.

Giftedness, with cousin "neurodivergence", are on our collective minds with increasing immediacy. Gifted folk tend toward open-mindedness. Yet being very open can be challenging when others have difficulty seeing the value of certain expressed ideas. The need to conform collides with the need to be authentic, becoming stultifying. What is the gifted person's place in society as they stretch toward adulthood?

Gifted individuals experience bias, at times stigmatized for their gifts. They are more likely to be bullied, increasing risk of emotional and relationship problems, which may reach clinical significance. Early-life identity problems dampen sense of coherence1—further increasing the risk of mental illness. Understanding the subjective, individual experiences of gifted individuals is a missing puzzle piece.

How Do Gifted Adolescents See Themselves?

Albright and Montgomery (2023), reporting in the journal Roeper Review, asked adolescents to self-assess how they see themselves, focusing on emotional intelligence and developmental factors. Using "Q methodology" (which involves rating various factors on a pyramid-shaped matrix to derive underlying clusters) they recruited 28 students from the ages of 11 to 15.

They were presented with 41 statements (footnote 2, the "Q set") on emotional intelligence and psychological development derived from Mayer et al.'s theory of emotional intelligence and Dąbrowski's theory of positive disintegration (TPD). Mayer's theory is what one might expect (self-awareness, empathy, degree of introversion, etc.), while TPD deserves a brief overview (footnote 3).

Four Views of the Gifted Adolescent's Emotional Self

Humanitarians

On the younger side, including 10 adolescents, 5 girls and 5 boys, they tended to have deep relationships with a small group of friends and connection with their parents. They were neither very extroverted nor introverted. They did not feel understood by others, but very empathetic, they saw themselves as understanding others. Teachers described them as helpful, the boys as more reserved or shy and the girls as more outgoing.

Self-reported sense of emotionality comprised three themes: altruism, compassion for others, and focus on helping others. They endorsed a positive, hopeful outlook, valuing fairness and equality, and viewing honesty and candor an important part of resolving conflict. They tended to be emotionally open, liked seeing others happy, and derived satisfaction from helping others thrive.

Politicians

There were 6 in this group, including 4 girls. While extroverted, they felt others didn't understand them. They spent more time with older kids, seeking deeper relationships. Teachers described them as talkative, "wanting to know everyone's business". Main emotional themes were independence, achieving homeostasis (seeking to keep things steady), and wanting to know about others. While wanting to learn everything about those around them, they played their own cards close to the vest, preferring privacy. They reported often feeling misunderstood, likely precipitated by lower levels of openness.

Emotionally independent, they tended to solve their own problems without help, hiding anger and other feelings from others. Forgiving others was hard, contributing to conflict avoidance and driving feeling misunderstood. While they had many friends superficially, they had fewer close friends, per teachers' observations. Politicians sought to maintain the status quo rather than seek to change things. When they did address conflict, they sought to work out compromises. They tended to intervene when things were unfair, and saw themselves on equal footing with adults.

Regulators

There were 7 students in this group, 3 females, on the younger side. They connected with people their own age and felt understood by others, especially with close friends, but self-described as being friends with everyone. Teachers saw them as avoiding negative attention and wanting to fit in with peers. Their strongest emotional values were reconciliation, getting along and having lofty goals. They sought to address differences by viewing multiple perspectives and tried to steer away from conflict when reconciliation was not immediate.

They described wanting what was best for the most people. They were more willing to be dishonest to smooth things over. Preferring to be upbeat, they did not project negative feelings onto others. They were friendly and tended to forgive others. A desire to please others could drive perfectionism.

Stabilizers

This was the smallest group, with only 2 girls. They felt understood by a limited number of people, seeking connection with those both younger and older, more outgoing with friends and shy with strangers. Emotional valence was for transparency, emotional awareness, and self-doubt. Emotions were on their sleeves, but they did not seek change nor to resolve conflict.

If angry, they would hold on to it, noting difficulty resolving personal difficulties. They tended to have trouble self-regulating, showing negative emotions freely. They felt they understood others' feelings and were selective in who they chose as friends, perhaps to avoid rejection. They tended to be less social and fiercely loyal to friends. They came from a more impoverished school and did not fit in with the rest of the students ethnically.

Thriving with Giftedness

This depiction is a step toward understanding how gifted kids view themselves and others emotionally and developmentally. Intuitively, these classes make a certain sense, with relatable profiles of Humanitarians, Politicians, Regulators, and Stabilizers. The Stabilizer group is small and less clear—but appears to have hallmarks of neuroticism and greater risk for isolation and distress4.

As psychologist Robert Sternberg points out in recent work on "toxic giftedness" (2023), it's critically important from a moral and ethical point of view that gifted people, who become followers and leaders, be afforded opportunities to become constructive members of society. Colluding with bullying, neglect, exclusion, and other forms of adversity encountered by gifted people, who often have the best intentions toward others, is likely to produce more evil geniuses. We have enough already.

There is a growing body of work on adolescent identity formation, including recently published research on different types of adolescent romance, with ongoing research5. There are cultural gaps to be filled for those with differences to feel safe and valued, to fully blossom.

References

1. Sense of coherence "expresses the extent to which one has a pervasive, enduring though dynamic feeling of confidence that one's internal and external environments are predictable and that there is a high probability that things will work out as well as can reasonably be expected”. (Schäfer et al, 2023).

2. Q-set: List of statements used
1. I am not bothered by conflicts and issues.
2. I am motivated to do what others expect from me.
3. I keep things to myself.
4. When I am angry, I act out.
5. I find it hard to know what others are feeling.
6. My friends are affected by my anger.
7. Other people’s problems do not affect me.
8. I do not even talk to my close friends about my feelings.
9. I am able to solve my own personal problems.
10. It is difficult for me to forgive others.
11. I get along better with some people rather than others because of their personality.
12. I like to keep things the same.
13. My feelings toward others determine how I treat them.
14. When I have an issue with a friend, I try to fix it in a way that benefits both of us.
15. I think about my feelings for a long time before I express them.
16. I am sometimes depressed by the suffering in the world.
17. I sometimes ask myself if what I am feeling is normal.
18. I like to talk about my feelings.
19. I manage my feelings by reading or painting or sketching.
20. I often have goals that are too difficult to achieve.
21. I am motivated by rewards such as prizes or money.
22. I judge other people’s feelings by the way they treat others.
23. I can tell how someone is feeling based on the way they react to certain things.
24. It is OK to say you agree with others in order to resolve conflict, even if it is not true.
25. I want to resolve conflict.
26. I understand my emotions well.
27. I am excited when I make others happy.
28. I want to benefit humanity.
29. How I interact with others says a lot about who I am.
30. I am driven by the desire to help others succeed.
31. It is important to me that I understand what others are going through before I judge them
32. I get along better with people who are motivated and want to learn.
33. I am sensitive to the needs of others and can usually anticipate what they are.
34. I am friends with everyone.35. In order to build a friendship, I must be able to accept who the other person is.
36. I like solutions which benefit as many people as possible.
37. My feelings are not as important as helping others.
38. It is more important for me to help others than to make money.
39. I understand how others feel by putting myself into their situation.
40. I must step in when I see others being treated badly.
41. If there is someone I do not get along with, I only talk with them about things we can agree about.

3. In TPD, development progresses through five stages, from a simplistic level of integration, through various degrees of disintegration and reconstitution through self-reflection and developmental efforts, to a more complex level of more coherently regulated adaptive disintegration, as follows:

1. Primary integration. No inner growth. Reminscent of the psychoanalytic notion of the baby's "primary narcissism", in which they are naturally the center of the world, in a narcissistic bubble as infants ought to be. Secondary narcissism develops later, and can become problematic if there are developmental problems.

2. Unilevel disintegration. Single level of development and/or conflict among issues at same level of complexity.

3. Spontaneous multilevel disintegration. Development on many levels, characterized by the greatest inner conflict.

4. Organized multilevel disintegration. Conflicts begin to be seen in relation to external factors, such as environment, family, culture, etc.

5. Secondary integration. Advanced multilevel development, with integration of thoughts and feelings about things beyond oneself.

TPD also offers insight into the hypersensitivity evinced with gifted individuals, which can be seen as instability rather than as a capacity for greater empathy and perception. In TPD they are are referred to as "Over Excitabilities", with five dynamics: Psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, emotional and intellectual.

4. Admittedly, the names are somewhat confusing, overlapping more than the descriptions themselves, which are distinct and line up with how smart kids often show up in social groups. A future version might pin this down better, especially with additional research instruments included to look at personality, social function, and other relevant factors.

5. For example, to futher investigate gifted personality and emotional styles using an expanded set of measures. It would be useful to repeat this study with a larger, more diverse group of kids, including more structured input from teachers, peers and family, and incorporate additional measures to look at mental health, personality traits, behavior, attachment and other indicators of social, academic and personal performance.

Sarah K. Schäfer, M. Roxanne Sopp, Alicia Fuchs, Maren Kotzur, Lisann Maahs, Tanja Michael, The relationship between sense of coherence and mental health problems from childhood to young adulthood: A meta-analysis, Journal of Affective Disorders, 2023, ISSN 0165-0327, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2022.12.106.

Elizabeth Anne Albright & Diane Montgomery (2023) Perceptions of the Emotional Self for Adolescents Who Are Gifted, Roeper Review, DOI: 10.1080/02783193.2022.2145399

Robert J. Sternberg (2023) Toxic Giftedness, Roeper Review, DOI: 10.1080/02783193.2022.2148311

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