Psychotherapy For The Gifted
Jerald Grobman M.D.
Madelon Sann L.C.S.W.

All sessions are on Zoom, join easily from any location.

Assessment of Gifted Children and Adolescents: A Comprehensive Approach

The Assessment of a Gifted Child´s Problems Needs to be Comprehensive

Intellectual (cognitive) intuitive (non-cognitive) aspects of giftedness, level of emotional maturity, areas of asynchronous development, quirky personality traits, passionate interests, and personal values, all need to be evaluated in context.

A description of medical issues, school setting, family dynamics, and general developmental issues, provide the context.

Unresolved issues and conflicts in any of these areas can lead to learning problems, psychological symptoms, and behavioral issues.

A formulation describes the psychological pathway for how this happens.

What are the Intellectual (Cognitive) Areas of Giftedness?

  • Academic Performance: A general sense of a gifted individual intellectual problems comes from a description of his or her academic performance – areas of excellence and areas that need improvement.
  • Neuropsychological tests: Provide a more granular description of intellectual abilities. Here intelligence is separated into areas such as:
    • Memory
    • Attention
    • Language
    • Perception
    • Executive Function
    • Motor Skills
    • Visual-Spacial Skills
    • Processing Speed
    • Capacity to inhibit the intake of new information.

A gifted person´s IQ is determined after each of these are quantified; strengths and weaknesses are noted and then compared against statistical norms.

Extra-Cognitive (Non-Cognitive) Areas of Giftedness: Beyond Traditional Measures of Giftedness

These are hard to describe let alone measure and quantify.

Yet, these are the traits that gifted individuals feel are responsible for the effortless nature of their accomplishments. These are the ones they identify as the most authentic elements of their giftedness.

What are the extra-cognitive elements of a gifted endowment?

  • A protean imagination and insatiable curiosity
  • Uncanny intuition and insights that emerge spontaneously and automatically
  • Clairvoyance
  • A capacity to be inspired
  • The drive to acquire and process new information
  • A diverse set of passionate interests
  • Special aesthetic and physical sensitivities
  • An affinity for the complex and the profound
  • Emotional intensity and reactivity.

As valuable and central as these traits are to the experience of being gifted, these elusive traits are the ones that cause individuals to have serious doubts about the reality, stability, and reliability of their giftedness.

An evaluation of how well a gifted individual can accept and use the non-cognitive aspects of his and her special endowment – regardless of issues and conflicts – is often the key to understanding gifted individuals’ academic success, as well as failures and behavioral dysfunction.

Evaluating the Special Problems of a Gifted Polymath

A child who is gifted in many domains – a polymath – may have trouble when he/she has to choose one area of expertise over another. Typically this problem occurs in the upper grades when the effort to keep up high levels of performance requires more time, more energy, and more sacrifice. Resolving these issues is the key to retaining “downtime” and fun.

Emotional Issues

Differentiating Primary and Secondary Emotional Issues

Emotional factors are often considered secondary or co-existing factors — either emotional reactions to the gifted child’s problems or as separate, co-existing “co-morbid” disorders, such as anxiety, depression, psychosomatic disorders, mood disorders, or personality disorders.

Our assessment offers a method for exploring when more subtle conscious and unconscious emotional factors have been the primary cause of a gifted child’s intellectual and behavioral problems. A child’s giftedness, personality, and the context within which these develop do not in themselves cause problems but a gifted child’s maladaptive efforts to resolve emotional conflicts about them may. For example, when a gifted child’s unresolved conscious and unconscious emotional conflicts about “contextual factors” and his /her own experience of being gifted may become displaced from this original source and transformed into academic, cognitive, or behavioral problems.

Evaluating the Role of Asynchrony as a Cause of a Gifted Individual´s Emotional Problems

Asynchrony is a common feature of all children’s development: some skills develop in advance of others, and some growth milestones are met later than others. Understanding the difference between normal developmental lags and neurobiological issues are a crucial part of the assessment of any gifted child. This is especially true for gifted adolescents for whom conceptual and intuitive processes as well as executive functions often develop at vastly different rates than their emotional development.

Gifted children and gifted adolescents are rarely emotionally gifted. In attempting to solve their own emotional problems, they generally use the same primitive psychological methods — avoidance, denial, acting out, and projecting blame onto others — used by normally endowed young people. Although these primitive psychological defenses in adults are often considered signs of serious psychopathology, in gifted children and gifted adolescents, they should be considered a normal aspect of development until proven otherwise. A puzzling aspect of asynchronous development in gifted children is how skillfully they can help their friends solve emotional problems and yet how little they can understand and work through problems of their own.

What are the Contextual Issues that may Influence Gifted Individuals?

Parental Issues

Parents often have conflicted feelings about discovering giftedness in their child. One parent may feel blessed and excited while the other may feel intimidated and overwhelmed. Parents may feel that investing too much in their child’s giftedness will make them a “stage” or “tiger” parent. On the other hand, parents may feel a more passive approach – allowing a gifted child to find his/her own way – may risk the gifted child’s disengagement when the going gets tough. How a gifted child responds to his or her own giftedness will be influenced by how the parents respond.

When Support and Encouragement For Giftedness Become Intrusive

Gifted children have powerful conflicted emotional responses to the involvement of their parents, teachers, and mentors in supporting their gifted development – evenhanded, measured efforts may seem intrusive, manipulative, and controlling. It is easy to understand a gifted child who retreats from desiring higher levels of accomplishments because of “stage” or “tiger” parents. However, it is confusing when a gifted child rejects reasonable, non-intrusive, respectful encouragement. This often happens when a gifted individual still has doubts about the reality of his or her giftedness.

It is identifying how these unresolved emotional reactions to the non-cognitive aspects of giftedness have become displaced and transformed that are often the main clues to the causes of the gifted child’s academic, cognitive, and behavioral problems.

Peer Relationships

Gifted children often flourish in a group of gifted friends who share their same intellectual sensibilities and sense of humor. However, a gifted child always struggles with how much time to devote to their own interests and how much time to devote to “hanging out” with friends to feel they have a life outside of themselves and can feel like they “belong”. Finding such a group of sympatico individuals is often one of the hardest parts of being gifted.

The Educational Context

  • Do the gifted child’s teachers believe in giftedness and understand what it means to be gifted?
  • Are the gifted child’s teachers willing to provide individualized, enriched curricula? This is important for precocious readers who need the constant challenge of advanced materials.
  • Does the school provide extracurricular activities that promote the growth of gifted potential?
  • Does the school setting provide an appropriate social milieu in which the gifted child can develop stimulating interpersonal relationships?

Medical Issues

Serious medical illnesses or surgeries may have limited a gifted child’s social and personal growth. However, these traumas may have provided an opportunity for a gifted child to develop the ability for solitary, concentrated exploration that makes full use of their gifted endowment. As potentially productive as this is, gifted children may have strong conflicted feelings about giftedness that develops under these circumstances.

Establishing The Formulation: A Brief Dynamic Description Of The Problem

A preliminary formulation – a tentative understanding of the problem – is now possible. This is the point where treatment can begin. This focused summary has two parts: 

  • A concise description of the psychological pathways for how complex unresolved emotional responses to external factors (social, familial, educational) have been transformed into the gifted child’s behavioral, cognitive, and educational problems.
  • A concise description of how a child‘s conflicted conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings about being gifted have done the same. This is the psychodynamic component of the assessment.

Both aspects of the formulation help distinguish a gifted child’s emotional responses to his/her behavioral and educational problems from the emotional causes of these problems.

Avoiding Misdiagnosis

The formulation also helps avoid the pitfalls of misdiagnosis – mistaking an emotionally-based problem for a problem caused by a neurobiological defect or a psychiatric disorder.

The consequences of misdiagnosis are serious. Helping a gifted child with a neurobiological defect focus exclusively on compensation techniques deprives him/her of a chance to resolve and eliminate their basic emotional conflicts.

Conversely, it is clearly inappropriate to treat a gifted child as if he/she has an emotionally based problem when the basic problem is caused by a true neurobiological defect.

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7pm - 9pm EST

Jerald Grobman M.D.

Madelon Sann L.C.S.W.​

We offer our sessions through Zoom’s virtual platform, providing flexibility to participate from any location.