What Does Exceptional Giftedness Look Like In A Teen?

If you or your people are still wondering if giftedness exists or if identifying gifted children is only a way to create division and increase inequality, let me introduce you to Judith.

She was a 16-year-old high school senior attending honors classes at a local university. Dark-haired, brown-eyed, fast talking, and extremely intense, she came to see me after her mother, Priya, had called to say she was worried Judith was socially isolated, depressed, and not academically challenged.

(photo by agung pratamah, Unsplash)

At our first meeting, Judith said she felt like a freak. She was driven to learn about, oh, everything and extremely lonely. Her peers did not share her passions. Even while attending college classes, she was disappointed to find much of the coursework unchallenging although there were a few professors who pushed her beyond where she thought she could go and who were deeply enthusiastic about their area of study. She loved those teachers.

Judith told me she was bullied in elementary school. Her enthusiasm for learning was misinterpreted as bossiness or condescension by educators and the other children. She would turn in book reports that were much longer than required and wrote 50 page prologues to highly imaginative novels she wrote in her spare time. She designed complex games at recess that confused the other kids.

Like many gifted humans I have known, Judith needed intellectual stimulation as much as she needed air. Even though she was clear about that need, she resisted the gifted label. She would explain that she was intensely aware of her shortcomings. She was also offended by what she called the “elitism” of the word.

At one session, in her fast-paced, animated style, Judith explained her love of philosophy, sciences, and mathematics. I did the best I could to comprehend the theories and examples and wished I could have provided more feedback on the substance of what she was saying, but her grasp of these topics was beyond me. It was easy to see how lonely her world might be. Many adults, including me, had little or no exposure to this level of intellectual content and complexity. I wondered if I really was capable of helping this young woman, whose Corvette mind could leave my VW bus brain in the dust.

And with whom could she share her excitement about the prospect of taking free MIT classes online? Where could she talk about her intuitive insights and her deep spiritual connection with nature? Where could she disclose her extraordinary fear of failure or her avoidance of activities she could not master quickly? Probably not with the other kids spending hours on TikTok.

Like other gifted kids I have known, Judith’s emotions were explosive at times and she struggled with perfectionism and procrastination. She said, “I don’t want to turn in crappy work that isn’t up to my one hundred percent.” She would also run out of time on assignments when she would get caught up in exploring something intellectually fascinating. Educators and parents often misinterpret these high standards and curiosity as laziness or obstinance. The powerful emotions can be misjudged as immaturity.

In our sessions, we talked about the beauty of and value in exquisite quality and yet we also looked for ways to determine what assignments and projects needed the highest standards, and which ones could just get completed adequately and efficiently. We made lists of ways to self-soothe and manage frustration and anger, including looking at triggers, emotional needs, sensitivities, and hormones. We used her own creativity and intuitive depth to concoct visual and auditory experiences that were both comforting and empowering.

Judith needed self-acceptance and a sense of her own worth and agency to navigate a world that often misunderstood and even rejected her. She was slowly building more resilience. Her love and knowledge of astronomy, physics, language, and philosophy, along with her intuition and spirituality, began to strengthen her sense of self and her place in the world. After meeting with me over a few months, Judith was also able to understand the importance, even necessity, of acknowledging her identity as a gifted human.

In fact, it made all the difference.


To my bloggEEs: How has knowing you are gifted (have a rainforest mind) helped you navigate the challenges in your life? What was it like before you knew? Thank you so much for being here, for finding me, and for your commitment to self-understanding and creating a more compassionate world. Much love to you.

Author: Paula Prober

I’m a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in international consulting with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. I’ve been a teacher and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a frequent guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I’ve written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal and online for psychotherapy dot net, Rebelle Society, Thrive, Introvert Dear, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, is a collection of case studies of gifted clients along with many strategies and resources for gifted adults and teens. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists is a collection of my most popular blog posts along with writing exercises for self-exploration and insight.

42 responses to “What Does Exceptional Giftedness Look Like In A Teen?”

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  1. keithkenobi Avatar

    Yes, good books, good teachers and parents and accepting friends.
    My kids just finished High-school. They did NOT teach them so many things you could actually USE (that is hard to do on Google). IE; Drive a car, change a tire, jump start a car. Do your Taxes. Touch-type, balance a checkbook, use a fire extinguisher, Pay bills, budget things, get a job you like… Mainly; find a mate who is a good match!
    They could teach the above and how to use google in the first semester, then spend the rest feeding/nurturing their unique interests and special capabilities. That would save YEARS of wasted time, and kids would feel wanted, needed, and not disgruntled.

  2. Sherry Avatar

    How I need this post and thread today. So much to think about. So many old, old memories jumping to the front of my mind saying “See?! See?? You were never broken or weird or crazy.” Memories of me at 3 and 5 and then being tormented all through school. It hurts to think all that pain didn’t have to be, but the world was just different 50 and 60 years ago. And I got to be a redhead, too! Freckles are a great spot to start teasing the shy girl who likes to learn everything. Yep. I read encyclopedias too. And the dictionary. But we lived too far out of town to get to a library very often. I sometimes get sad about all the learning I missed because we lived too far for me to walk to a library.

    lackosleep – thanks for sharing your insight.
    everyone else – thanks for sharing yourselves.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      So glad you are here, Sherry. And, yes. Don’t we all love libraries. And bookstores!!

    2. cherylhlmn Avatar

      How happy was I to find others who’ve read the encyclopedia for fun in elementary school.

      Who, like myself, went to post secondary school while still in high school just because there was soooooo much to learn.

      I have lived in a world where my processing speed and ability to make unique observations has been both a blessing and a curse. Mostly a curse if you plan to love me or be loved by me:).

      I have accepted my differences. Found gratitude where I can.

      I simply love reading everyone’s journey.

      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        And we love reading yours, cherylhlmn! Thank you.

      2. annette Avatar

        You mean other kids didn’t read the encyclopedia?! There were so many really cool things in there. I was so sad to hear home just didn’t have them anymore. Sorry, but Google is fun, but not the same.

    3. lackosleep Avatar

      Oh yeah!!! The encyclopedias! We used to get one volume free every month with a certain $ purchase total at the supermarket. I couldn’t wait till we picked up the newest one each month! I can still picture some of the page layouts (very visual processor… all memories are pics/vids – even text/numbers!) Thanks for sharing!

      1. Sherry Avatar

        lackosleep we may have been reading the same supermarket encyclopedias!! That is just so very cool! Yes! The pictures!! Practicing writing/copying Mayan numerals. And memorizing so much simply because it was fun.
        Heaps of thanks to my mother for knowing how much I NEEDED learning. She got the supermarket encyclopedias because that was what was in our means.

  3. Sheep’s Wool Avatar
    Sheep’s Wool

    lackosleep, thank you for sharing your hypothesis on differences in meaning-making between neurotypical population and those who recognise giftedness in themselves.
    This speaks to me.
    You mentioned these nascent thoughts on a theory in the context of rejection. Maybe you would include the experience of loneliness with it too.
    I feel apart. I’m slow a lot (though fast in other ways). I’m wired that way. I wonder why.
    Anyway your words really helped give some context. 😀

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Everything may not always be fast in the rainforest mind. Sometimes the thinking is slow and deliberate and deep. Or processing takes time. Not everything comes easily. (ie decision making??) There might also be some twice-exceptionality. So, Sheep’s Wool, even though we have similar traits, there are also differences, unique wirings, and strengths and weaknesses. So many reasons for “slow.”

      1. Sheep's Wool Avatar
        Sheep’s Wool

        Thanks so much, Paula. In my case, the thinking moves smoothly and quickly enough, thankfully : ) It’s a very enjoyable pursuit for me and feels like a good use of energy. I don’t get drained easily by it (except when I reach information overload eventually). I think divergently or in a tree-like way. (“Penser en arborecsence” in French).
        However, what I have discovered IS slow for me is doing, that is, moving from thinking to getting things done.
        It takes a lot of psychic energy for me to “get things done”.
        I mean – even in the concrete act of doing an activity, like starting to tidy a room, it takes longer than for a regular person.
        I think it’s a HSP thing, and perhaps a divergent thinker thing.
        My mind is envisaging the scene before me (in an abstract way); it is conceptualising each part of the activity (and imagining that in detail, not consciously, but just inherently as part of the HSP/divergent brain). Dr Elaine Aron said that HSPs think deeply about everything.
        I think I am carrying this thought process around with me all the time, and when I go to DO a CONCRETE thing, I use that process too. And applying it to things, to get an end result, requires a lot of energy.
        That’s why I’m slow.
        But I am probably here on the planet to be slow and to think and to be kind (when I can).
        I am thinking recently that the planet probably needs more of us to be slower – not to be “efficient” and slot “systems” into place to achieve systematic outcomes like we have been doing in advanced economies.
        Much love, and sorry for the long reply.
        Echoing lackosleep, what I wrote above definitely doesn’t make me fit well into our current social system : ))

  4. annette Avatar

    It’s been a long time coming, but I finally figured out that everything does not have to be completed perfectly. My one easy class in college was photography. I did all that was asked; no comment from the teacher, just “you got a B”. REALLY?! My Dad had done some professional photography, so I took them home for him to look at. His answer: The professor didn’t get your photos. Now that I could understand! I’m glad at least my Dad got my photos. That lack of connection can be so frustrating…

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      It can be annoying when a professor does not take the time to provide specific and insightful feedback. Glad you had your dad, annette!

    2. keithkenobi Avatar

      My Dad was a photographer, we don’t have many pictures with HIM in them. Both my Parents were teachers too. My brother and I were lucky to have them, and we had some great teachers too. We sought out extra curricular classes and had good luck! The great teachers recognized the uniqueness of EVERY single student.

      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        It can make so much difference when you have a great teacher, one who cares about their students deeply and loves their job!

  5. River Aaland Avatar
    River Aaland

    RELATABLE. It’s so important to be able to name the truth of our experience, it’s beauty and it’s challenges. It’s self and life-saving. I’m so glad she found you…and that I did too!

    1. River Aaland Avatar
      River Aaland

      And my perfectionism caught those incorrect “it’s!” Argh! Hahaha.

      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        Glad you found me, too, River. Even with our imperfections. Especially those it’s and its conundrums!

    2. keithkenobi Avatar

      I read your profile River, very nice, you do a LOT of great things. I hope you have someone similar to take care of YOU!

      1. River Aaland Avatar
        River Aaland

        That’s a very kind thing to say Keith, thank you. (I feel like I should update that profile to include some recent interests!) Wishing you good care too.

        1. Paula Prober Avatar
          Paula Prober

          Wow, River, I just read your profile, too! You are quite impressive, I must say!

          1. River Aaland Avatar
            River Aaland

            Ack! I’m blushing!

  6. lackosleep Avatar

    For me, the reluctant acceptance of the label “gifted” came late in my life, well into my 50’s. For the entirety of awareness of “different”, which goes back to around age two, I thought that as long as I resisted the notion of gifted, then I could still hope to be included and fully integrated into the groups I so desperately longed to be a part of, but repeatedly failed at. I now believe I would have been much better served emotionally had I been guided into early acceptance, and learned to be free of the futility of my hopefulness. While we culturally tend to add positive connotations around the idea of hope, it can also be a negative – a constraint that prevents true acceptance of that which is beyond our control.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Interesting example of why some resist the truth of their giftedness. Thank you, lackosleep.

    2. Marina Berts Avatar
      Marina Berts

      Dear lackofsleep, I do recognise myself in your description. For years, I tried to belong to different groups, for example doing voluntary work and trying to make things better for others. And only to discover that the other group members rejected me because of my passion, my intelligence, my desire to help and to make things move forward. They felt jealous immediately. I’m too fast, too involved, too sensitive, always too much or not enough. Always something wrong with me, according to others. So I don’t make the effort any more because I know I can’t belong, and I concentrate on myself instead and have learnt how to use my energy in a constructive way instead of wasting it. And when I meet someone that responds to my way of being, that feels just wonderful, and I try to cultivate that friendship very rare indeed!). I wish someone had told me that I would constantly be rejected, so I could have learnt earlier on how to move forwards in life without exposing myself (in)voluntarily to such rejection.

      1. lackosleep Avatar

        I sooo understand your experiences. I’m finding another way to contemplate the rejection, that may provide additional perspective. It’s just a human behavioral hypotheses I’ve been researching/analyzing. In simplest form, most “neuro-typical” people [sociatally] live within a fear-based, status seeking/preserving value system. Gifted people [observationally] tend to live in a integrity-based, truth seeking value system. That value system, in and of itself, is incompatible with, and a perceived threat to the fear-based one. We have a hard time seeing it, because we simply pursue the neutral truth in all we pursue, and assume others do as well. We don’t care if the truth promotes or threatens our societal status, or of those around us. But they sure as heck do!

        1. clignett Avatar

          lackosleep, this is so finely put to words what I’ve felt all my life! Thank you for stating it so clearly and “simply”! 🙏🥰

        2. Pecheoiseau Avatar

          I really needed to hear this today! I was telling someone who appreciates my giftedness that, to paraphrase, “My giftedness is not an indictment against their neurotypical status.” I’m not trying to make other people feel worse about themselves by understanding things easily. Gosh it’s lonely constituting a threat all the time!

          1. Paula Prober Avatar
            Paula Prober

            That is why we are here, Pecheoiseau!

          2. lackosleep Avatar

            and so isolating, too. I think back to my youth and how alone I could feel in the midst of a crowd. I wish I had known back then what I [think] I know now :). I think largely due to our cultural indoctrination, intelligence certainly feels like something that is “contestable” to many, a learned skill to be competed with. I think it would serve the world better if we gave up on that part of our aspirational, but largely false cultural ideas.

            1. Zasha Avatar

              I started contemplating this (thank you for your sharing) and I ended up in a world where you’re not graded and hence made to compete on “intelligence” (in my country it’s not actually intelligence but their ability to be a good show pony and parrot what is taught to them best), but on the greatest learning or development or improvement relative to where they themselves were last year, so each student only competes with themself whilst competing with others only in actual application of ourselves to our improvement. Celebrating who has grown evolved improved most amongst our peers!
              Oh what a world!

              1. pprober Avatar

                Thank you Zasha. Good to hear from you. What country?

                1. Zash Avatar

                  We have a rote learning system in our schools here. My correct answers were often penalised because I used my own words and didn’t reproduce the exact words in the book. Here, intelligent kids are those that obey, do their homework and rote learn everything. Social structures are quite rigid with rigid roles so everyone essentially parrots. And any deviance is frowned upon.

                  1. pprober Avatar

                    Sending love to you in Pakistan. So glad you are here, Zash!

                2. Zas Avatar

                  Thank you so much for your work, your dedication and your passion. Reading this is the first time I found something that encompasses the whole of me. I thought I was the only child on the planet who realised age 5-6 that something was very wrong with my parents, and my environment. I’ve never met another who was aware. Of course this means my psychological development was quite different from those undergoing childhood trauma that were unaware and blamed themselves for.

                  I long to meet another like me. And now I know I am a subtype and so there are others 🙏

                  1. pprober Avatar

                    Yes, there are others. Welcome to your rainforest mind!

      2. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        Glad you found us here, Marina. You are so welcome!

  7. clignett Avatar

    As long as I can remember I was treated differently at school, didn’t matter in what country we lived in at that time (expat child, so many countries). I was curious and wanted to know all about the subject. Mind you, this was before internet even existed. So teachers, peers, and even family couldn’t help. Except my father, he could understand my questions, but did not always have an answer. But for me, it was heaven that he could understand where these questions came from and what my endgame was.
    Throughout my childhood and teens I was bullied, called a freak, frowned upon, you name it. I didn’t understand why or what it was that I did “wrong”, but to avoid all that I started to withdraw from people. I copied the niceties, the “coffee-talks”, but couldn’t muster the interest for very long. On the other hand, they couldn’t understand me for not sharing my life, because I knew they would frown upon it again (“what did you do in the weekend? Did you have fun going out?” “Eh… yeess…??” I couldn’t say I was reading the encyclopedia from start to finish again, or that I’ve started reading the phonebook (yes, I know, really old-skool!) again. Yes, again. Just to test my memory. Going back to front instead of beginning at the beginning.. just for fun. Oh, and when internet became a real thing.. I taught myself coding in HTML (too easy, so I let that go again), MS-dos had a couple of surprises for me, which I really enjoyed (just testing if an idea could work and if not why not and if I tried it from a different angle, would it work then.. yes, it does! Yeey! Ok, done with that too.) Let’s just find information, no matter the subject. And get lost in all the links and sublinks and other side information.. really, it was an eye opener!
    In the meantime I’ve had 2 burn-outs, had years of therapy and coaching, and still couldn’t figure out what it was that I needed. More information? More speed in my life? Or the exact opposite? I just could not get my mind around it, and the therapists I had (many of them) couldn’t follow my train of thoughts, not the speed, not the jumping from one thing to another (which in my mind was a logical step, but my mind works at wharp-speed, so for the therapist in question it would be difficult to follow when you don’t have step 4 to 347 and are expected to stay with me at step 348..). Another story that is..

    When I found your blog, and started reading the blogs, the comments, everything, it started to dawn upon me that maybe I wasn’t the only one struggling, not the only one trying to survive instead of living.
    And I just happened to come across it because I was bored out of my mind after another late boardmeeting and needed some “downtime” and “relaxation” and did the Mensa test for that purpose. Sent it in, went to bed and didn’t think about it anymore. Until I got the envelope with my results and the exclusive invitation to sit through a thorough test to join the Mensa.. this just shocked me to my core… me??? Mensa??? My results??? Really?? I did that test in 20-25 minutes to unwind.. eh.. ??? It shook me so much that I tried to bury it first (to this day I regret throwing that letter and invitation out with the trash, but it really really scared me!). So, burn-out 3 came along. This time it was a complete meltdown. Physically and mentally, not to mention emotionally. My mind shut down, my body shut down, everything shut down. I called the union I remember that. The man on the other side of the phone had to walk me step by step to send an email to my work. He even dictated it. Then he said that I should turn off everything, phones, computer, doorbell, everything. And go to sleep. And stay in bed as long as it takes. When you are ready to get up, you only call your GP, tell him what has happened and let him take care of the rest. And when you’ve done that, call us back and we’ll help you with anything you need.

    I returned to your blogs, read them again, this time with a clearer head as to what I was really reading and taking it in and recognizing myself in everything. It gave me hope, which is such a powerful thing! It gave me strength, and a feeling of belonging. I cried for hours, not really knowing why, but somehow it was grief that was leaving my body. I went to see a paragnost, and she helped me see what I was hiding from myself. Or better, who. Myself. I was hiding myself. I was denying myself from me. More grief. But the good kind. Of course with many regrets, realizing what my life could have been if I had sticked to being me and not pretending or copying others. Just be me, and accept me for me.
    Which I do now, with ups and downs, step by step. If I need to take a step backwards, so be it. Don’t beat myself up for it anymore, it’s just a “hiccup”. Tomorrow is another day, or the day after, or the week after. I’ve learned to trust the universe, to trust my instincts, my intuition. I still have blind spots for people I care about, but when they’ve done me wrong, I have no problem anymore to remove them from my life. Not without pain, of course, but still. No more.

    Realizing that I am gifted, a rainforest mind, a 2E or even a 3E, is a gift. Even now, at 52 years, with maybe 25 years of therapy where I would give the therapist lessons in how to give me therapy..

    I can understand myself now, I can get less annoyed by people who don’t understand me, and can let it go. I feel as if I’m given a second chance at life. Which gives me the strength and courage and energy to relocate, reinvent myself, start over.

    Wishing this hard and rocky road to recognition to no-one, hoping that the world will see that giftedness is indeed a gift, and that we are indeed very much needed in this world.

    Thank you, Paula, as you and your blogs and bloggees have given me such insights and made me feel I belong. I have a “family”! ❤️❤️

    (PS sorry for the enormous epistle!)

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Your example/description is very helpful, clignett. No apologies needed. So happy you are in the family. <3

  8. lauralynnwalsh Avatar

    This is one reason I have long hated the maxim: “Do your best”. Something too hard? Just “do your best”. I would have been there for years if I had been required to “do my best”. No one ever told me how to evaluate what tasks needed to be my best. Yes, eventually I learned to decide that, but I try not to put that burden on others.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes, lauralynn, I tell people to avoid saying “just do your best” to a gifted person. People mean well but they don’t realize the implications for someone so capable!

  9. keithkenobi Avatar

    Yup, she is NOT alone,,,, well, each of us IS, but not globally. Where is that time-machine?

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