Bazinga! Social Skills for Gifted Children

Sheldon Cooper. Have you heard of him? He is the main character on the TV show, The Big Bang Theory. The idea is that these super smart scientists band together and create their own peer group; the equivalent of the kids they would sit with at the lunch table in elementary school. As an audience, we are cheering for them as they find the acceptance as adults that they were missing as children. We root for them to overcome their various issues and learn to interact with the larger community to form satisfying relationships. As the show progresses, they have more or less success with this adventure. While TV is certainly not reality, there are bits and pieces of it that we see and can relate to either from our own experiences or those of our friends and family. It would not be so successful if we had nothing in common as viewers.

As I watch it from the standpoint of a therapist, you can imagine the things that I am thinking.  This is especially true for me, because I have devoted my entire professional life to helping children and families with social skills deficits. Some of what I see them doing zings right to my brain. I can’t help mentally applying some of the strategies we use in our Stepping Stones groups to the character’s behaviors and wondering how the outcome would be different if they had nurtured these skill sets as children. How would their lives be different if they had focused themselves in a well-rounded way, as opposed to only on their intellect?

There is a common misconception that gifted children have an easier time in school because the academic piece of things comes so easily to them. While appearing mature and self-assured on the outside, intellectually gifted children often feel confused, lonely and misunderstood. Frequently, their intellectual abilities are not in sync with their social abilities. In fact, many times it is one of the primary reasons they are not able to go with the flow of the other children. Their intellect acts like a shield that goes up when they venture into situations they can’t immediately excel within, most of which are social. These social interactions in elementary school help kids form a strong sense of self, a base of friends to support them as they head to middle school, and a lifelong set of skills to buoy them in every new situation. Without an understanding of how they fit with their peers, kids can feel isolated, depressed and, even with their superior intellect, they can struggle in school. Group therapy is an effective tool to work with these exceptional children.

Highly gifted children who are the most successful socially are able to participate actively in a give and take conversation, accurately read the body language and facial expressions of other children, and develop an understanding of the perspective of others. These are the kids who are less likely to become the targets of bullying and more likely to develop powerful and lasting friendships. There is no need to give up the things that make them who they are to accomplish these social goals. Instead, they need to be able to fit the different pieces of themselves into a more complete puzzle. Rather than seeing their intellect as what sets them apart, they can use it to work on the skills they need to be included. Combined with the support they are already getting from their parents, this is a winning formula.

At In Step, we serve this population extensively. Our Stepping Stones groups are comprised of many gifted children and their parents. The nine phases of social skill development we work on with our families, address the core issues for these kids. We start with how to get to know one another, work through finding ways to join new groups, learn about how to read the social signals our peers are sending and tackle the big questions about teasing vs. bullying. We then move on to finding strategies to bolster self-esteem while working on reducing stress, engage in problem solving/conflict resolution activities and finally, learn to manage strong emotions and how to appropriately express anger. Each phase builds on the one before it. As the group works together, practicing their new skills and getting feedback from each other, they move steadily toward the goal of becoming more proficient at making and keeping friends.

Imagine how the cast of characters on Big Bang Theory could benefit from the information we give our kids at In Step. Sheldon would likely share his “spot.” Howard would have more real relationships versus the one’s he has online and Raj wouldn’t have taken so much time to learn to talk with women. What makes for funny television is certainly less amusing when the issues are real and your child is struggling with how s/he feels about him/herself. As the parent of a gifted child, there are certainly aspects that are enviable. However no amount of accolades for academic achievement can substitute for a happy, well-adjusted son or daughter. Kids need friends and an understanding of how relationships work in the same way they need intellectual challenges. By tapping into the resources they already have and combining them with parental support and a structured program of skill development, their potential for fulfillment is greatly increased.

All the best,

Cathi Cohen LCSW, CGP