Psychological Misdiagnosis of Gifted and Talented Children

Gifted and talented children face many challenges. One challenge is being correctly identified. The other is living in a world where their personal traits are often poorly understood. Such challenges put these children at risk for having certain difficulties at home and school. Being gifted may also be misdiagnosed or overlooked.

What It Means to Be Gifted or Talented

There is no universally-accepted definition of giftedness, although IQ testing has been among the most commonly used standardized tools to assess ability. Many experts feel that such tests may fail to recognize many truly gifted individuals.

According to the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development, gifted and talented children possess greater than average awareness, perception, and sensitivity. This may be expressed in one or more areas, such as art, music, language, science, or math. Some common traits of gifted and talented children include:

  • Ability to reason well and learn quickly
  • Creativity
  • Strong imagination
  • Good memory
  • Deep absorption in activities that interest them
  • Keen observation, perception, and insight

Difficulties Facing Gifted and Talented Children

Because of their finely tuned awareness, gifted and talented children tend to experience life differently and more intensely than others. Unfortunately, peers and authorities at school or home often do not understand these differences. Gifted and talented children may experience problems, such as:

  • Boredom and impatience
  • Frustration and disappointment when ideals are not reached
  • Disregard for, or open questioning of, rules and traditions
  • Preoccupation with deep human concerns, sometimes leading to anxiety and depression
  • Difficulty observing boundaries and channeling their intense energy
  • Not “fitting in” with their peers

The child’s intense personal traits and difficulties may be viewed as symptoms of a mental or emotional disorder. Misguided therapy or medicine may follow, as the doctor or therapist attempts to suppress or “cure” the symptoms of giftedness.

Common Misdiagnoses

Gifted and talented children may be misdiagnosed with other conditions, such as:

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Traits such as intensity, impatience, sensitivity, and high energy are common in children with ADHD, as well as in gifted children. Some gifted children do have ADHD, but many do not. They are at a different developmental level than other children. As a result, they may be inattentive and impulsive in certain situations.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Like children with oppositional defiant disorder, gifted children frequently appear “strong-willed.” However, such behavior may be due to their intensity, sensitivity, and idealism. They do not like to be criticized for their different way of thinking. They may question the rules and engage in power struggles with authority figures.

Depression and Bipolar Disorder

Gifted children may have intense mood swings. They notice inconsistencies in society and in the people around them. They can feel different and alienated from others. These traits are often found in children with depression, especially those with bipolar disorder. Symptoms like mood swings, irritability, and difficulties with temper control do not necessarily mean that a gifted child suffers from a mood disorder, but they should likely lead to consultation with an experienced child psychiatrist.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder

Gifted children like to organize things into complex structures. They tend to be perfectionists and idealists. They can get upset when others do not go along with their ideas, appearing intolerant and “bossy.” This behavior may be mistaken for obsessive-compulsive disorder or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

Asperger’s Disorder

Highly gifted children often have different ways of interacting socially. Their unusual comments and jokes may be misinterpreted as signs of Asperger’s disorder. People with Asperger’s disorder may be gifted—especially in certain specific skills—but they do not respond as well as normal children to ordinary social or emotional cues. They may not make friends readily and often prefer to keep to themselves.

Gifted children, on the other hand, often show a great deal of concern for others. If your gifted child gets along well with both adults and children, then a diagnosis of Asperger’s disorder is very unlikely.

If you are concerned that your child may be struggling with a mental health concern, make an appointment with a child psychologist who has experience working with gifted and talented children.

Dual Diagnoses

In some cases, gifted children may be diagnosed with another condition.

Learning Disabilities

Gifted children can have hidden learning disabilities. Such disabilities may include auditory processing weaknesses, difficulties with visual perception, writing disabilities, spatial disorientation, dyslexia, and attention deficits.

Gifted and talented children may develop a poor self-image when learning disabilities are present. They tend to dwell on the things they cannot do and may need help in developing a good self-concept. Gifted children with learning disabilities have a great deal of trouble getting needed help in their schools because their academic achievement is usually above grade level despite their disability. Most school systems require a history of academic failure before they will provide remedial services.

Sleep Disorders

Nightmare disorder, sleep terror disorder, and sleepwalking disorder appear to be more common in gifted children. Some gifted children sleep a lot less than other children. Others sleep a lot more. In the presence of unusual sleep patterns, the doctor can help advise you whether a gifted child needs further evaluation for sleep or psychological problems.

Family Problems

Parents and family members may lack information about the traits of gifted children. Such children may appear to be willful, mischievous, or strange. They may be criticized or punished for behaviors that stem from curiosity, intensity, and sensitivity. Power struggles, temper tantrums, and other behavior problems may surface. Effective therapy should involve helping the family understand and cope with the child’s intensity.

Education Needed

Gifted and talented children often must overcome many challenges to reach their potential. They frequently need help interacting in the mainstream world, finding supportive environments, and channeling their talents. When gifted and talented children are misdiagnosed and wrongly stigmatized, they cannot get the type of support they need. Families, educators, and doctors need to be better educated about the characteristics and social and emotional needs of gifted and talented children.


Characteristics of giftedness. GiftedDevelopmentCenterwebsite.

Webb J, Amend E, Webb N, Goerss J, Beljan P, Olenchak R. Misdiagnosis and dual diagnosis of gifted children. Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted website.


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