When bright kids become disillusioned

James T. Webb

Bright children are often intense, sensitive, idealistic, and concerned with fairness, and they are quick to see inconsistencies and absurdities in the classroom, in their families, and in the world. They are able to see issues on a universal scale, along with the complexities and implications of those issues. Children with high expectations and idealism are often disappointed, and disillusionment seems to occur mainly among the most idealistic children. They may become disillusioned only in some areas, or they may become completely disenchanted with life, which often leads to feelings of loneliness, unhappiness, anxiety, and even depression.

During childhood, the world seems simple, straightforward, and uncomplicated. The expectations and rules of daily life within the family are clear, and their awareness of the world is generally limited to their immediate family. Unless they live in a chaotic, confusing, abusive family, life for most young children is generally consistent, predictable, and emotionally comfortable. They trust that they are safe.

When children enter school, they are exposed to differing expectations and rules from their teachers, and as they see how other children, parents, and teachers behave, they begin to question their previously steadfast illusions. They discover that they are not the main focus, as they are at home; they are expected to fit in with other children and act like them. They learn, too, that other families live their lives according to different rules. Although, for instance, their parents insist that the children obey them unquestionably, other families may let their children talk back to adults and question and challenge them. Perhaps a child’s family is concerned with helping others, supporting charities, and preserving the environment, but other families focus on conspicuous consumption and attaining wealth, power, and prestige. A child in a family that is critical and judgmental of others’ shortcomings may discover that other families are more accepting. Children begin to realize that families and teachers vary in their views of the world and of how one should live one’s life. The simple innocence of childhood becomes perplexingly complex, and, in adolescence, even more so. These bright youngsters wonder which way is the “correct” way of living and often worry about what they will want to do with their lives. As they grow gradually into young adulthood, they question which values and behaviors they will live by as an adult. Will they follow a teacher’s guidelines, their family’s example, or will they cast off some of those behaviors and take up new ones?

Their brightness, sensitivity, and idealism make them likely to ask themselves difficult questions about the nature and purpose of their lives and the lives of others. Even very young gifted children may ask questions like “why do people hate and kill others because they look or act different?” or “why did my friend, who was a good person, die when he was only seven years old?” Teachers and parents find these questions to be challenging and uncomfortable.

These are not idle questions; these children focus on issues of fairness, wonder how they should live their lives, and want to know the rules of life and of the universe. “Who am I and where do I belong?” are questions they may ask themselves repeatedly because the answers devised in childhood and adolescence were inaccurate or incomplete. Quite early in life, bright children develop the capacity for metacognition—thinking about their thinking—often even before they develop the emotional and experiential tools to deal with it successfully.

As bright children hear the evening news, they see that the idealistic world does not exist. Instead there are stories of intolerance, assault, robbery, and murder. It is not uncommon to hear reports of people hurting or taking advantage of others. People in positions of trust, such as politicians, clergy, scoutmasters, teachers, and even parents, engage in dishonesty, neglect, or abuse. We live in a world where many people do not take responsibilities seriously and where there seems to be little concern with quality. Poverty abounds, and the environment is ravaged daily. So few people seem to care. It is not the idealistic world we try to present to our children. And bright children often find that peers of the same age, and even many adults, do not share their concerns.

Teachers and parents may try to reassure these children by saying something like “you can make a difference in the world when you grow up.” But such statements are seldom comforting because these bright minds are keenly aware of the many issues and needs that surround them,, and they feel helpless to fix the many troubling problems they see. As a result, they can become disillusioned and depressed even at a young age.

How frequent and how strong are these feelings? A teacher friend described what she observed in her second-grade gifted cluster classroom:

I had three students initiate conversations with me about wanting to die. Two of these conversations were ignited by a particular situation occurring in the child’s life connected with death and dying. The third seemed to be connected to ongoing issues in the child’s life concerning his self-image and place within the family. Some teachers may have been horrified by such disclosures, but I felt more empathy than horror. As a teacher I felt helpless as to how I could help these children cope with their feelings, since I felt the same way as they did. What is the essential piece of life (relationships, family structures, personality characteristics, future life situations) that can help them cope with these existential thoughts and steer them toward mental health as opposed to a life filled with depressive thoughts and possible suicide? There are little children sitting nicely in their desks and at the dinner table who are thinking of killing themselves. They may let these feelings show, or they may keep them hidden. They may tell someone, or they may not. These feelings can be devastating to a child so young, as she feels there is something wrong with her. She may feel as if her existence is more of a burden on her family than it is a pleasure to experience life.

Among bright and caring children, disillusionment is not rare, and it can lead to feelings of despair and aloneness. As these individuals examine themselves and their place in the world, they can see how things might be and should be. They start out believing that others share their idealistic concerns, but they end up feeling like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. Sometimes they are fortunate enough to find a few other idealists, but all too often they feel alone in their struggles. Many find themselves accused of being too much of something—that is, their friends, families, and even teachers repeatedly say to them: “You are too serious,” “You think too much!” “You are too sensitive,” “…too idealistic,” “…too impatient with others,” “…expect too much of the world,” “...focus too much on what is wrong in life.” Disillusioned idealists battle with feelings of loneliness, sadness, emptiness, self-doubt, and often an intense search for meaning.

The loneliness of being disillusioned and different

A six-year-old who frets about war or helping the homeless or victims of natural disasters, or a twelve-year-old concerned with her life purpose rather than with the latest fashion or rock star is likely to find herself being one of the “cafeteria fringe” who is unwelcome at any lunch table. Or, she may be bullied or teased and called “loser” on a daily basis because of these serious interests. In the classroom, the student with unusual ideas or demanding questions may well find himself sitting by the wall, outside of the teacher’s line of vision to reduce his participation in the class. I knew of a kindergarten teacher who invited a behavior modification team into the classroom to help with a boy who asked too many questions, and they were proud when he had learned to ask just one question every hour.

Any person who is in a minority group is particularly likely to feel outside of the mainstream and, as a result, is apt to struggle with issues of feeling different, left out, or ostracized—all of which can result in disillusionment. Any member of a minority, whether based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, looking different, or being idealistically concerned with life-purpose issues, is at risk of a minority experience. Being different can lead to feelings of disappointment and a lack of connectedness with others; in other words, being thoughtfully gifted can be a very lonely experience.

Many people, whether young or old, with such weighty personal concerns are hesitant to share them, fearing that others will see them as bad-mannered or that they will not be understood. And that may, in fact, be the case. Friends and family may try to reason them out of such thinking, making comments like “You have friends. You are doing well in school (or at work). You should just enjoy your life right now” or “Of course you are doing important things to help the world; you have a good job and a good family.” In my experience, most people are reluctant to talk with others about their existential concerns of disillusionment because they doubt that other people will care enough to listen and because of their own discomfort. They are not yet ready to experience the angst that can arise if they begin thinking carefully about their lives.

Teachers face a dilemma. On the one hand, they are supposed to educate the whole child and to help each child find his or her place in the world. On the other hand, teachers are limited in what they can do and say. They are customarily prohibited from discussing values in the classroom, except for seemingly universal ones, and they are evaluated for students’ accomplishment and content mastery of basic minimal standards. Despite attempts at differentiation, so much of the curriculum in age-grouped classrooms is lock-step and focused on basic minimal levels—something that quickly raises issues of fairness for gifted students. Treating everyone the same is not fair; just because one child in a classroom needs braces, will we put braces on the teeth of all the children? Disillusionment with the educational experience typically results.

So what can you do as a teacher? Here are a few ideas.

Recognize the process of disillusionment. If you understand, you will be able to think of ways to be helpful both in and outside of the classroom.

Don’t try to argue a child out of his or her disillusionment. It won’t work, and you run the risk of losing the most important thing you have with the child—your relationship.

Listen to and understand the child’s concerns about unfairness and aloneness. Intense, sensitive, disillusioned idealists usually feel very alone, and one teacher, parent, or other caring adult can be a lifeline.

Use developmental bibliotherapy and cinematherapy. As alternative reading, suggest books where the characters are bright youngsters dealing with disillusionment, or movies featuring a gifted child with such concerns. Then you can use those individuals as the basis for further discussion and relationship-building.

Help these youngsters find other idealists. Feeling alone, disillusioned, and powerless can be truly miserable. When these children are with other idealists, they feel less alone and more empowered, perhaps able to find new ways of viewing the world.

Remember that a gifted child’s age-peers are not necessarily his or her intellectual or idealistic peers. If allowed, these children often gravitate toward older playmates and adults in their search for friends.

Bridge the gap between home and school. Parents of gifted children typically welcome contact with a caring teacher, and teachers can suggest books, websites, and other resources where parents can better understand the concerns of their children and foster better relationships.

If a child seems severely disillusioned, alone, and depressed, do not hesitate to bring the matter to the attention of the school guidance counselor, psychologist, or someone else in a helping position so that a suicide assessment can be made. Ideally, you accompany the student; if the student refuses that offer, you make the report regardless. Of course, teachers do not want to obligate a school financially by suggesting specific diagnoses or treatment. However, they can note what they have observed and encourage the parents to explore appropriate websites or books.

Take care of yourself. Teachers who advocate for gifted children often find themselves being in a minority, becoming disillusioned, and being at risk for burnout. Often this is referred to as “compassion fatigue.” When your battery has run down, you have nothing left to give.

Disillusionment implies a dissatisfaction with the status quo. As such, it can be an opportunity to gain wisdom and a positive life lesson that can lead to personal growth and sometimes a newfound feeling of belonging and purpose.

James T. Webb, Ph.D., the founder and director emeritus of Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG), has been recognized nationally as a highly influential psychologist on gifted education. The lead author of six books and numerous articles about gifted children, he has served on the Board of Directors for the National Association for Gifted Children.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Teaching for High Potential (November 2016).