Adolescence and Gifted: Addressing Existential Dread
I must also say that I do not ascribe to the Wheel of Misfortune idea, that would allow me and the reader to ease the tension of discomfort by selecting a target worthy of blame. I do not know if adolescent thoughts and behavior are shaped by TV, video game playing, drugs, violence or 'Rock and Roll'. There may be powerful causal forces in the class distinctions that are so clear to children - those who can afford a wardrobe of name brand jeans and those who would kill for them. Some pundits blame the breakdown of the family, some espouse the belief that we have lost our sense of values. I suppose we may be seeing phenomena unique to our historic times, but I recall very similar themes in myths about the Olympian and Norse Gods, in Jewish historic and sacred writings, in the journey of Buddha, in the oral traditions of Native Americans and in classical literature that is written about adolescents.
What if part of being very bright, extremely bright, has a dark side that eats away at youth? What if part of the burden of brilliance is the roller coaster of knowing too much, seeing too much, feeling too much? By too much, I refer to the times children ask questions that we regard at face value and thus perceive as shallow, and since they are young we ‘spare’ them depth, so they continue in the loop of horror. Or, we assuage them rather than listening deeply enough to engage the profundity of the issues and concerns being expressed? This next essay was written by a young woman when she was a Junior in High School.
This child of fifteen is carrying a dark view of the world about with her. She is walking in dread and she describes her world in shadows of gray. I took this young woman’s piece to my college students. I passed out the essay during a discussion of adolescent development. I was startled at the resonance in the room. This child spoke for many. I then asked how many of these bright young people had considered suicide.
I encountered an overwhelming, “Yes! I began considering suicide in Jr. High!”
I asked them with whom they had shared these thoughts.
Most had not shared them with an adult. A few said they
had hinted about their feelings and intentions to an adult, but had not
been taken seriously. Two remarked they had been greeted with parental
anger rather than apprehension or questioning. It seemed to me that the
group, as a whole, carried a thread of lightly concealed hunger for someone
to stand as a target for dedication; give them a sense of purpose that
This word solutions is chosen carefully, because of the double entendre. I do not believe in “all the answers,” but I do believe in a team approach where many take cognitive and personal responsibility for hearing and doing, for adding personal strengths and insights. I believe that adults seeing these adolescent issues, and youth knowing that adults are seeing issues and are concerned, belongs in the middle of working with the youth in a quest for answers.
Youth I have talked with have shifted their need for attention from “Notice me,” to “Validate the importance of my feelings.” Just the process of communicating “I honor your feelings and see your intensity,” or “I want to understand,” has assuaged many adolescents. I also believe it is hard work to listen deeply and openly enough to honor that intensity, and doing so is sometimes rather unpleasant. That is not because of the shock factor for youth, but because we adults lose our own innocence and carry a heavier burden of understanding.
Listening to and hearing adolescents is vital (Ginnott, 1972). Our intellectually gifted students need direct involvement as well. Though many youngsters will pursue their intellectual gifts with passion, many need assistance, guidance, and tangible modeling to enhance emotional, social and philosophical development. These youngsters are multifaceted and need:
1) to be nourished socially,
2) taught to find emotional acceptance and growth, and
3) provided nurturance, philosophically. Some will find their way through the mirages and morass without that assistance, but many others have not and will not.
A sense of dread can be paralyzing and those youngsters who get lost in the mazes of immaturity and become disillusioned and discouraged can become permanently lost to us and to themselves. Losing hope may lead to losing focus. Our adolescents live in a dangerous world with many escapes that are life swallowing. The potential is ever present that our youth will not only lose hope and focus, but may lose personal volition through poor choices. We would never leave a toddler unattended close to the highway.
The morass of existential dread and the concomitant lure
of deadly escapes is no less threatening to gifted youth. Augmenting the
depth of educational progress for gifted adolescents may have social ramifications.
Providing youth with the education to make moral and psychological gains
that are commensurate with our scientific gains may provide an emotionally
healthy and socially adept intelligencia to steer us through the next
years, not moral pygmies and self appointed social outcasts who find little
to value in the human condition and little comfort in fellow humans. So,
extra attention to gifted youth may enhance their passage through adolescence
and provide benefits to humanity as well.
I wish to reiterate that a team approach to finding and
implementing solutions will work best. Not only do parents and teachers
need to recognize and address the needs of these young people, the young
people themselves need to be assured of the saneness of their feelings
of dread. They can be taught ways to enfranchise themselves and accept
the lucidity of feelings so that they can deal with them constructively
One way to frame this socialization issue is the example
of creating art for self and the sake of art versus producing art to please
consumers. It is a common theme for creative geniuses. Many of our greatest
artists were recognized for their genius long after the works were completed
and the artist, musician, writer, died in poverty and a sense of oblivion.
While many people are able to work as team players, those with extraordinary
genius often report a sense of isolation and a lack of interest in pursuing
social or team efforts. It is very compelling for many brilliant and talented
people to have the final project “just so,” and to need to accomplish
this either oblivious of, or at the expense of, the vision of others.
We know a Degas when we see it, and others who imitated his style did
just that. We can distinguish between a J. S. Bach and J. C. Bach with
little trouble. One is the father, the other a son. One got close to genius,
the other was one.
We may not get better at recognizing flair or genius in
progress but we could get better at valuing those who seem compelled and
different. We could provide support, comfort and express acceptance for
the person despite our lack of vision about the accomplishments. Every
Jr. High and High School has a group of outcasts. Teachers can reach out
and provide approval. Teachers can model appreciation of diversity and
provide support for those who are “different.” We can lessen the abyss
between social acceptance and creative isolation by valuing the person
apart from appreciation of the product. Simply, we value the being of
the person rather than being caught up in simply rejecting what the person
Teachers can approach parents about the depth of teen inner
life and skepticism. My experience tells me that parents can be as uncertain
about students who seem different as anyone else. There are few parents
who become angry when told that a son or daughter is in the gifted program.
At the same time, there are few who know how to ask their children how
they feel or know how to offer to be supportive. Sometimes parents suffer
with a child’s social rejection and some feel a personal alienation from
the child. Parents can be assisted to understand the importance of searching
for self and become more adept at attending to adolescent mood swings.
Teachers can provide support to parents through sharing awareness of these
issues and current research about effective programs and reading materials.
Addressing student feelings of isolation, alienation and depression as
a team could be very meaningful.
The normal developmental progression of the adolescent may
confuse parents. Taken at face value, teens appear to be brimming with
esteem, as evidenced by the messages echoing sentiments of certitude and
egotism from “I know,” to “You don’t understand anything!” This paradox
of esteem is confusing. What are parents to believe? “I know everything.”
“I do everything right.” “I have the answers to world problems.” “I’m
afraid to walk alone in the Mall.” “I’d rather die than wear that brand
of pants.” “If I don’t have a steady and a ring I can’t go to school.”
“I can’t walk out of my room with this face full of ‘zits’.”
A teacher recently gave a personality test for measuring anger to a group of teens. The teens seemed adept at answering honestly and appeared able to accept ownership of the labels the test gave -- hostile, critical, untrusting. The whole exercise was going very well. The teacher then turned the exercise toward reflection and introspection. I watched the classroom attention disintegrate. Agreeing to the scoring and the labels of hostile or angry was acceptable to the youth, but reflecting on how it was affecting others was either not possible or not tolerable.
Parents can be taught to expect and recognize this fluctuating
state of mind, energy and affect in youth and to see it as a normal developmental
process rather than as upsetting or pathological. Instead of bemoaning
the irresponsible thinking, or feeling like a personal failure, parents
can remind themselves that this youthful lack of insight is transitory.
We can be understanding about the lack of causal and consistent information
processing while the teen focuses energy toward growing beyond the stage.
Teen suicidal ideation and depression may be approached the same way,
as very dangerous and transitory, abrupt in coming and assuaged with proper
attention, not personalization and recrimination.
Teens crave acceptance. That is probably a biologically
based drive. Who is a companion to someone twelve years old who wishes
to discuss immortality and the purpose of existence? There probably won’t
be many in the school. Rather than feeling alienated by peer disinterest,
youth can learn to discuss those things that are mutual interests with
age mates. These include mundane but reality based topics - food, music,
acne, movies. It is important to value intelligent pursuit, and to work
to meet individual needs, and it is also vital to teach students to look
to and meet the needs of others as well as self. Impatience with peer
chatter is just as damning as peer impatience with lofty topics.
Some youth turn to alcohol for acceptance in a peer group.
Some turn to substance abuse to escape psychic pain. Neither reason will
assist the youngster to cope with the resulting addiction, and addiction
does not fundamentally aid in feelings of belonging. This is a serious
matter, this belonging and feeling accepted. It is vital to recognize
what we have to lose if other outlets and forms of social attachment are
not available to these youngsters. Though many teens are resistant to
adult intervention, they are not resistant to being accepted into adult
status and provided social outlets through adult company. If this is viewed
as mentoring it can be powerful. The stakes are great enough to persuade
me that a productive solution that promotes social expertise is critical.
This does not imply that the child can provide companionship and social
acceptance for the adult, but rather that the child has someone who provides
acceptance and solace for them when needed. The balance of power and control
is best served by an adult who maintains responsibility for the relationship
rather than moving to the child’s emotional level and attempting to get
personal needs met.
Emotional Acceptance and Growth
We can also separate out intellectual gifts from emotional
strength. Some youngsters are quite fragile. Thus, though it is true that
we may want to point out and address intellectual giftedness and creativity
through pilot programs and pullout classes, we may need to factor in the
emotional strength of the youth we plan to involve. In fact, it is my
own personal belief that many gifted children will pursue areas of intellectual
and creative expertise unassisted, while areas of social and emotional
weakness will be ignored or denied. We can assist youngsters to look at
emotional strengths and fragility and then provide training in self awareness,
self understanding, second person perspective, thus enhancing the emotional
At the very least we could assist youngsters to understand Erikson’s (1968) explanation of emotional development during adolescence. I find college students regaining composure and a sense of well-being when they realize that others had the same hurdles, questions and issues as they face. I can see visible relief in their countenances when they find that it is normal to question sexual identity, to lose track of time, to have a period of disorganization, to desire the acceptance of peers and find parent perspectives valueless for a time. It is important to give youngsters a road map of adolescence so there is less damage from the change.
I don’t believe that we “make it happen” by naming it.
Instead, it may be possible to see adolescents flourish and grow more
quickly if they recognize these changes as normal and transitory. Youngsters
who recognize the multifaceted ways that gifted youth develop see that
they are advanced for their age in some ways and not in others, will be
able to help themselves maintain better emotional health and find personalized
means to pull themselves from the recurring morass of depression and dread.
Provide Nurturance, Philosophically
Few of us could imagine conducting Socratic debates with
early adolescents over issues of murder and suicide, social pathology
or religious indecision, but that may be just what these youth need. Facing
existential dread alone, without guidance, may lead to suicide rather
than deeper, questing thought. Serious attention to the individual’s perceptions
and issues is crucial. Once we take the student seriously, we can begin
focusing reading to include works of others who have asked about the same
enduring questions. We can talk constructively about age mates developing
these same questions or never being faced with them as urgently, thus
reassuring students of the saneness of their pursuits and making it feel
less alienating. Along with deep philosophical questions can come an ability
to see and value second person perspective. Three excellent sources for
discussing philosophical development are Jean Piaget (1964), who is fairly
easy to read, Lawrence Kohlberg (1984) who can be very difficult reading
and Carol Gilligan (1982) who speaks of the importance of considering
gender in the development of moral reasoning.
A part of this dynamic may be explained through the change
in moral reasoning (Kohlberg, 1981). Most youngsters are in transition
from seeing the world as black and white and actions as right or wrong
to believing in “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” There is
a literalness in a search for truth - ‘One and only one truth, as I personally
am able to capture it,’ to a more diverse search for knowledge and for
understanding the milieu of the question, the perspective, the layers
of ideation surrounding the quest. Realizing that it may be impossible
to gain all truth, to have all the answers, is mixed with a desire to
know all things and a hope of being able to contain all wisdom. The cycle
of hoping and despairing, of feeling powerful and yet remaining impotent
adds to the dread and depression. It creates a roller coaster of seeking
for truth, yet hearing the whispers of how impossible the search for the
Holy Grail of all truth and wisdom may be.
It will be many years before the adolescent sees the accumulation
of questions as wisdom. It is a steep and arduous journey to the place
of humility that permits admitting that each person may have a separate
reality and that the vision of truth may be elusive and idiosyncratic.
In the meantime, the search continues and youthful energy waxes and wanes,
building to a crescendo and crashing in whimpers. Truly bright youngsters
need help maintaining equilibrium, especially since most peers are neither
engaged in, nor interested in the Quixotic pursuit. It also helps teens
to know that the mystical path to knowing is an arduous task worthy of
their time and energy, and just as unsettling for all who walk it.
Parents can make a contribution by recognizing how real
and how dangerous these feelings of dread can be. We can provide support,
empathy, and empowerment to youth by giving credence to the feelings,
spending time as adult peers to youth who are ready for adult companionship,
reaching out with compassion rather than anger when told of suicidal feelings
or despair. If we learn more about developmental milestones, we can relate
to the stages of growth, provide insight for self and the youth and recognize
the transitory nature of disquieting behaviors.
Teachers are a keystone. Many of us have experienced the
struggle first hand. We can model acceptance for ‘odd’ youth and insist
on socially appropriate actions, communications and grouping throughout
the school setting. We can be mentors to these gifted youth and let them
know that we are learning from them as well as providing for their educational
quests. We can share developmental insights from specialists and focus
some of the learning experiences around classroom ideas and research.
We can listen carefully to the thoughts shared and provide nudges to send
students looking in productive areas rather than floundering. We need
not diminish the excitement of discovery but show genuine excitement as
students find the nooks and crannies we also found in our intellectual
climb. Teachers can serve as an intellectual peer group also, as long
as the ethic guidelines of mentor ship are followed. We can also be alert
to depression and despair, and provide insights to students and parents
when danger seems imminent.
I have learned a great deal from being bright, and I have
found it to be a joyful burden. I have rejoiced when I have not had to
walk alone and have been warmed when I could share myself and my ideas
with others. The people who I cherish most are those who stood as a warming
presence, not as far off beacons. I needed them! Our youth today need
Erikson, E.H. (1968). Identity, youth and crisis. New York:
If you wish to discuss this with others in the class or write a brief essay for 25 points, sharing your ideas about gifted youth or existential dread, you may click here to go to the VCC.
Now that you have completed all the readings, you may now:
Go back to Adolescence and begin working on the assignments for the module.
E-mail J'Anne Ellsworth at Janne.Ellsworth@nau.edu
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Northern Arizona University