Is Your Defiant, Underachieving Child Actually Gifted?


Spirited kids are often really, ridiculously smart. The reason for this is plain.

"Because I said so" doesn't work for a highly intelligent little person. Neither does "Last one in bed is a rotten egg." They are more likely to question back, "Why does that even matter ? I don't care if I'm a rotten egg!"

Smart kids are also unlikely to be swayed by material rewards, like the promise of a special treat,  because they have a stronger ability to delay gratification than other children. The gratification of being right or getting their own way is more powerful than candy or "technology time" and can sustain them for hours, days, or weeks. Their ability to "just not care" about the consequences is actually quite profound. And boy, do smart kids know how to manipulate others! They are true puppet-masters!

When parents tell me that their bright, defiant child is failing school, here is one of the first questions I ask myself: "Is this child actually gifted?" 

When I use the word "gifted" I don't mean "gets straight As." Gifted (high IQ) children can actually struggle academically because they are profoundly, painfully bored; anxious; struggle to fit in; or feel disliked by teachers. Sometimes boredom causes them to space out in class or refuse homework. Sometimes this boredom causes energy-sucking depression, fatigue, and low self-worth. Gifted people are disproportionately much more likely to drop out of high school.

Also consider that some gifted children are exceptionally bright in areas that standardized education doesn't cater to, such as spacial relationships, advanced physics, or robotics. So while he's failing English all through grade school, we might not see until graduate school that he has an incredible gift for computer programming.

The majority of gifted kids will sail through school, bringing home a 4.0 GPA and rarely even completing homework. But there's a costly price to pay.

Kids who never experience failure turn into young people who feel empty, lifeless, and lost.

We build self-esteem through surviving failure after failure and pushing hard to succeed. Through this experience of falling down, we learn how to rise. We learn how strong we truly are. Easy success does not build confidence. It just doesn't; No matter how many "A+" papers your child brings home or how much praise they earn. Without intellectual struggle, gifted kids easily fall into depression and existential grief. This can look like "just not caring" about school. It can turn into failing school. Or worse.

Gifted kids need to be engaged in something educational that absolutely fascinates and frustrates them. They need to not understand some things right away. They need to experience the failure, curiosity, smallness, and sense of wonder that their same-aged peers feel at school every day.

If their gifts are not being tapped into or challenged at school, you may have to find a special avenue to help them. This might be an engaging extracurricular activity. It might be a class at a local community college or a course online. It also might mean advocating for your child at school with teachers, changing schools, or homeschooling.




Danielle Maxon is a child therapist and Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the State of North Carolina. She has been strengthening families in North Carolina since 2011. In August of 2015 she created her private practice, Under Wing Therapeutic Services, PLLC, which offers parent-child play therapy, parenting support and individual counseling for children under 12. Danielle specializes in the treatment of complex trauma, including profound neglect, orphanage experiences and adoption; gifted and twice exceptional issues; and special sensory needs. She particularly loves helping exasperated, hopeless families and "therapy drop-outs."