Former "Gifted" Kids Are Sharing The Effect It's Had On Their Lives, And It's Actually Super Sad
"At some point, I just wanted to be a kid rather than the 'genius' (family’s word, not mine) people wanted me to be."
A while back, we wrote up a post about former "gifted" kids and the effect it's had on them in adulthood — and the BuzzFeed Community came through with a lot of their own experiences, so we're back! To start us off, "gifted" kids are children who are put in higher-level classes at a young age (sometimes it's even called a "gifted" or "gifted and talented" program) and essentially told they are smarter than the other kids.
First off, we want to say that many "gifted" or advanced programs can be really helpful (and keep some kids from getting bored or under stimulated), and it's very privileged to be able to end up in one. However, being labeled as "gifted" at a really young age can be really, really damaging to kids — here's what former "gifted" kids had to say about it!
WARNING: There are mentions of eating disorders, anxiety, and depression below.
1. "Anyone else in the boat of 'if I’m not naturally good at it, it’s not for me?' Because so much came easily to me academically at a young age, the older I’ve gotten, if I have to work for something or practice I just give up on it."
2. "I’ve been out of school for 20 years and I have never been able to grow out of the crippling perfectionism and imposter syndrome that came with being 'gifted' growing up. I still get irrationally angry if I can’t do something new exactly right the first time I do it."
3. "I'm still a teen (part of accelerated/'gifted' programs currently) and my mom doesn't understand why i think I have ADHD, depression, and anxiety because my grades are good, and I SEEM happy. She says 'it's just stress.' No, it's not. I look out the window or look at the floor during most of my classes (the ones I don't particularly love) because if I'm not 110% hyper-focused on something, I'm going to tune it out. My study and work habits suffer because I don't know what we're learning when I do that, and I often take until the last minute to complete assignments because I have no motivation to do them until then (depression and ADHD focusing problems)"
"One of my best friends can't get diagnosed either, and is in the same boat as me. 'Looking' neurotypical and mentally stable because you get good grades is NOT the same as actually BEING neurotypical and mentally stable."
4. "I went to college at 16, a gifted program at a university, for kids like me. I didn’t take foreign language, music, gym, health, personal finance, art, and history. By my second year of high school, I was in AP physics, calculus, biology, chemistry, English, and an ACT prep course. I spent lunch with my teachers. No friends. I got to this university, and I crashed and burned. Suddenly, sitting in class and doing my homework while the professor talked didn’t work. I had no clue how to study, or what to do if I didn’t immediately understand a concept."
"Before I started there, I had already toured Harvard and met with an adviser in their physics department. My plan was to go to grad school there, and become a theoretical physicist. Well, turns out you need to know calculus for that. I got a C on my first calculus exam, and the dean of the school came to my dorm to put me on academic probation. My second semester there, I got a D in Calculus 2. I was still 16. They told me if I didn’t take over the summer, I might be kicked out of the school.
I don’t remember my entire time there, or much of that summer. I know other horrible stuff happened there; I just don’t remember. We were all locked in at 8:00 to study. We weren’t allowed to have our cars, or leave the campus. We couldn’t go into dorm halls that weren’t ours, and we weren’t allowed to get less than a B. I finished my associates at a community college, feeling like a true failure. I couldn’t even succeed there. I couldn’t listen. I definitely couldn’t learn. Studying was impossible. I got B’s in some classes. I was embarrassed; I would never be a physicist. I had no friends or social skills. I didn’t know how to balance a job and laundry. I had agoraphobia, extreme anxiety, and eventually was diagnosed with ADHD.
I found medicine, my love. I work in a world class pediatric ICU. I was never again a 'genius' in school, but obviously I worked hard enough to get into school and study medicine, even as 'average.'”
5. "As a former gifted kid, I just got burnt out. Having my teachers and family constantly focus and praise my academic prowess and not much else because that was all that I was really good at, while it got me to the top 5% of my class, it made me resent it to no end. At some point, I just wanted to be a kid rather than the 'genius' (family’s word, not mine) people wanted me to be. And they wonder why I’m not in college right now."
6. "I too was 'Advanced Placement' and 'Gifted and Talented.' So much so that one of my 'Gifted and Talented' teachers actually wrote in my ninth grade yearbook: 'I expect great things from you.' I remember the disillusionment that only grew as I progressed in my education. By high school I was realizing I was not getting into Harvard, and by college you realize you are really quite average."
"One of my best friends was 'that student' who skipped a grade. She would tell you she wished she hadn't. She has done well for herself, but always hated being behind her peers socially and in puberty. I realized in my career how mistakes and failures felt crushing to me, and I was adverse to risk because of possible failure. We never learned that mistakes are opportunities for growth and learning. We had to be perfect all the time."
7. "I was considered 'gifted' in high school. I was valedictorian. ... I was incredibly disorganized, had trouble paying attention, regularly fidgeted, often broke things without meaning to, was a terrible driver, etc. Being considered 'gifted' hid the fact that I had ADHD. It wasn’t until a year into grad school that I finally got diagnosed and properly treated, and it changed my life."
"With the hard work ethic and now the ability to tune into the lectures, I went from intro to genomics straight to advanced molecular biology in my second year of grad school. Being labeled something like 'gifted' can paper over problems you may have."
8. "Being a 'gifted' kid meant my ADHD went undiagnosed until adulthood because I didn’t struggle in class like ADHD kids are 'supposed' to. Even now, in my late twenties, half my family doesn’t believe the diagnosis because I’m 'too smart for that' (as if that has anything to do with it)."
"It’s meant years of therapy as an adult, dealing with severe anxiety and imposter syndrome, and having absolutely no idea how to organize my time or build good habits. I was able to coast through my early school years without studying or applying myself at all, so I never learned how to cope with things like executive dysfunction and object/time impermanence. Any small failure feels like the end of the world, and I struggle immensely with feeling inadequate in my relationships (especially romantic ones) because I feel like anything less than perfection makes me a disappointment and not worthy of love."
9. "I didn't know I was autistic until I was 25 because I was a 'gifted kid' and all of my blatantly autistic qualities were overshadowed by my intelligence, so no one ever thought to have me evaluated. I knew I was the smartest person in any room but I also felt like there was some sort of secret trick to making friends and being socially accepted, and everyone else was in on the secret except for me."
"In late high school and college, it became much more apparent that intelligence alone was not enough anymore — I had not developed the social skills, study skills, coping skills, executive functioning skills, etc. that were crucial to academic success and just life in general, so I had a really rocky start to adulthood. Now I'm thriving and I love my intelligence and I embrace being autistic, but being a gifted kid was the reason I missed out on resources that could have spared me a lot of trauma and failures as a teenager and young adult."
10. "Almost every former gifted and talented kid I know, including myself, ended up with anxiety, and/or depression, and/or autism, and/or ADHD, none of which were diagnosed in childhood even though they were definitely already present. No one bothered to test us for things like ADHD or autism because we were smart and got good grades and had enough intelligence/mental capacity to mask long term because we weren’t being taxed at school and then got to adulthood when we had to use that brain power to actually do stuff and couldn’t figure out why we couldn’t cope."
11. "I was really young when my teachers suggested to my parents that I be moved up several grades. In kindergarten I was doing third grade work, in fourth grade I was doing eighth grade work and reading from college book lists. I never had to study. I never struggled to get straight A's. I have ADHD, anxiety and depression and am a perfectionist. If the tiniest thing goes wrong, it's the end of the world. Coping is not a skill I have. Neither is patience. Everything has been relatively easy for me to learn. If you don't get it right away, you're an idiot and not worth my time. Failure is not an option."
12. "My favorite part about being the 'gifted' kid was when it was never enough. I got second in the writing contest — that contest doesn't really matter. And second? WTF is that shit? Get first or bust, and join a contest that actually matters. It was fun. Loads of fun."
13. "I was a straight-A student in gifted programs all through my public schooling. My classmates would get praised and rewarded by their parents when they got anything above an 80%. I would get a 'well, what did you get wrong?' on anything less than a 100%. I could get 99/100 questions right on a test, but all my parents would focus on is the one question I got wrong."
"Also, I have severe social anxiety, I never learned how to make friends (people only wanted to be 'friends' with the freaky smart girl whose nickname was dictionary if they wanted a good grade on a group project), and I’ve never been in a romantic relationship at 28 years old. I will NEVER put my future children in a gifted program."
14. "I was a gifted kid all my life until college, and not once did it do anything but break down my self esteem. I felt like I'd never be liked or wanted if I didn’t have certain grades or messed up on one assignment. Ended up with raging perfectionism issues and a 10 year battle with an eating disorder. Not worth it at all and if I have a child one day, Im going to make sure they know that their value doesn’t lie in numbers."
15. "The ever-present feeling that you're not living up to the expectations others put on you and you're constantly disappointing them (and yourself). I was the 'gifted' kid who didn't 'apply' myself. I got relatively good grades because school was easy, but they could've been better had I actually tried. Teachers wanted to place me into the advanced programs/courses, but I didn't want the extra work. I refused to test into the IB program in high school because it would've meant moving schools and leaving my friends. The only real indication of my 'gifted'-ness was my test scores. Sometimes it feels like everyone around me thinks I'm 'wasting all that potential,' when in reality I'm just trying to keep my head above water like everyone else."
16. "The expectations people have of you! I avoid going back to where I grew up as much as possible and haven't kept in touch with those friends because I haven't gone on to 'change the world' or become super successful. My imposter syndrome is crippling and I still have trouble accepting the fact that some adult skills are hard to learn, like why haven't I figured out how to network like a normal, professional adult?"
17. "I went to college with a ton of pressure to 'use my intelligence and talents' (my dad pushed me to major in mathematics because I took five types in high school, including stats and AP Calculus). I spent two days in an advanced Calculus class as a freshman in college and HATED EVERY MINUTE of it. I immediately switched majors to education, which made me so much happier. But since then, I have been told by multiple teachers and other people in my life who knew I was gifted that I 'wasted my gifted and talented-ness on an education major.' You are held to a standard no one can live up to."
"I can’t tell you the number of times I wished, for even a second, that I hadn’t been placed in the gifted program at the age of 10 at my school. Why? Because from that age on, I was labeled as a nerd. My only superlative in high school? Female teacher’s pet. I look back on that in shame — not because it wasn’t true, but because that was a label others created for me that was severely harsh."
18. "It meant that I have always felt the need to do 'more' to live up to my 'potential.' Why? In the eyes of whom? I'm nearly 40 and I'm only now getting it, but this pressure has over the years led to unhealthy situations like overconsumption of alcohol, and elevated cholesterol and triglycerides from stress eating, comfort eating, and a sedentary lifestyle due to working all the time."
"Just this month, I've made a change in one of my three jobs (see? Why three jobs?) that will allow me to work 40 to 45 hours a week instead of 50 to 60. Having a kid has helped; it's changed my priorities drastically."
19. "I have terrible anxiety when I make the smallest mistake, when I don’t know something in grad school or while I’m working. I always feel like I’m living up to this standard of being 'smart' and realizing that I’m just average really kind of made me lose my sense of self and self worth. I didn’t know how to identify myself anymore."
"And I feel terrible saying this — I know it’s so bad so please no one berate me for it — but I often compare myself to others and I get upset when someone that wasn’t 'gifted' has the same career as me or is doing better than me, and find pleasure when I feel as though I am smarter or have made it farther in life compared to others, because I was always told how successful I would be by my parents and teachers. I guess not being any better than some of my 'average' peers makes me feel like I let them down or didn’t live up to my potential."
20. "I learn very quickly, and it’s a blessing and a curse. Say you start a new job and just blow through your training period in a fraction of the 'normal' time, you’re a fully functional member of the team, and taking on more and more responsibilities. Maybe you even streamline/innovate. Awesome, right? Not always. Because you shot right to the top in the eyes of your bosses, but that skill increase can’t continue exponentially. You basically set an impossibly high bar for yourself."
"Nothing is that impressive anymore, and now 'average' looks shitty. I burned out so badly trying to constantly stay ahead of that. I would crave validation because I was only secure in my position if I was the 'best,' but since I wasn’t an impressively fast learner anymore, I had to be the best in other ways (longer hours, intense perfectionism, taking on work that wasn’t mine to deal with, etc.)."
21. "I tend to pick up things very quickly, and I can work efficiently. In an ideal world, that should have led to promotions, but in reality it just led more and more expectations and responsibilities without better pay or benefits. But once you get into that position, there’s no getting out of it. It always ends the same way: I get chronically ill and end up in a stand-off with my boss where they refuse to either promote me or adjust their expectations back to what they actually hired me for."
"They usually can’t just outright fire me, because FMLA protects me. But they’re always more than happy to watch me suffer and then eventually hire two people when they replace me."
22. "I was rebellious, and I have never felt more alone than high school. I didn’t want to do anything the teachers expected of me, and in half my classes I slept most of the day because they were so easy and the other half (math classes) I was having to repeat because if I didn’t understand it immediately, I would devote absolutely no time to it. My attitude was if I can’t get it immediately, it must be the subject's fault, not mine. I have no study skills because I never had to. And I thought I’d grow up and live this special life because I was always made to feel like I was special, but it’s mediocre at best. It’s also given me this attitude that because I am good at my job and can pick up new things quickly and excel, that certain rules don’t apply to me. I am late for everything, jobs and social events…but because I do so well once I’m there, people tend to tolerate it. I don’t want to be that person but I’m 35 and it’s unlikely I’ll change any time soon."
23. "I’m still (at nearly 40) working on adjusting my attitude of superiority. I have a huge amount of resentment towards careers that don’t require college but pay way more money than those that do (which is progress, because I no longer resent the people in those jobs). I know I sound like an asshole. It was pounded into my head over and over as a kid that college was the only way to be successful. My self-worth was really tied to my status as the 'smart kid' and my academic success, which was supposed to lead to a successful and financially lucrative career. It was hard to realize that the grown up world didn’t really work that way. I’m working on my attitude and not putting that same pressure on my kids."
24. "I was in gifted and talented classes until I went to high school. ... I honestly wish I wasn't in those classes because you're told that because you're 'smarter,' college is the only option, but school was actually really hard for me. The idea that my future would only mean anything if I went to college was really stressful for me. It would have been nice to have other options for the future offered to me."
25. "One thing that nobody seems to have mentioned is negative reactions from one's fellow students. I started first grade at five, and got a scholarship to a rather exclusive private school starting in second grade. While this provided a lot of opportunities that I wouldn't have had otherwise (advanced math and languages, for example), there were some less pleasant aspects. Recess, for example, was unmitigated hell. I was the 'scholarship kid,' I was the 'brain,' and I was 12 to 18 months younger than the other kids (and therefore smaller and weaker)."
"I was beaten every single day from second through seventh grades, usually by multiple assailants. Fortunately we moved before eighth grade, and I entered public school in our new location. It was a college town, so there was a reasonably good gifted program (although boredom was still an issue). I wasn't tormented on a regular basis and developed some normal friendships (some of which have continued for five decades)."
26. And finally..."I recognized as an adult that I developed social anxiety in elementary school because of being 'gifted.' The constant expectation, the bullying — it was all so overwhelming. The only thing I did well at was academics, and I'll never forget the first time I got a C in the fourth grade and I had a meltdown. I felt like a failure, and it took a long time to recover. I had anxiety and depression all through high school. No one believed me because I was doing so great in school. I dreaded school so much."
"Once I graduated from high school, I just stopped doing everything. I took college courses and just ended up fucking around for a couple years. Got a job, worked and worked. It took a really long time to get back onto a path where I feel good, but regardless of my accomplishments and my supposed successes, I still have intrusive thoughts that I should've done more, or done better, or I should have a better job or make more money...it never stops."
What was your experience being labeled as "gifted" from a young age? Let us know in the comments below!
Submissions have been edited for length/clarity.