Do G&T children have more than their fair share of social-emotional difficulties? Kalliope Emmanouilidou looks into the research and challenges some stereotypical views

Interviewing for a research project on the learning profile of G&T children, I asked ‘Do you often put your hand up to answer the teacher’s question?’. The child surprisingly answered ‘no’. He justified his reply by explaining that he wanted to give the other children the opportunity to learn, too! He was just six years old and nominated by his teacher as academically gifted. I was intrigued to find out if this child was gifted in a social-emotional sense – and whether all gifted children have such attributes, especially when the literature suggests that they only face difficulties in this area.

Relevant literature and research findings
Research findings suggest that gifted individuals have some negative social-emotional attributes:

  • The gifted are more prone to adjustment difficulties: low self-esteem, competitiveness, perfectionism, depression, and envy (eg, Masse & Gagne, 2002; Plucker & Stocking, 2001; Robinson & Noble, 1987).
  • Their feelings of being different lead to interpersonal conflicts and emotional complications (McLeod & Cropley, 1989).
  • Their peers describe them as being eccentric, socially isolated, snobbish, physically meek, etc. (eg, Coleman, 1985; McLeod & Cropley, 1989).
  • The high expectations from parents, teachers, and peers for excellence create pressure (Coleman, 1985; Roedel, 1986); also, their success is often taken for granted and they frequently don’t receive the much-needed positive feedback (Clinkenbeard, 1991).
  • When high expectations are not met, they experience deflated academic self-esteem, stress, depression, and poor adjustment to the classroom (McMann & Oliver, 1988).

Common attitudes and the media
Apart from the literature, there are common attitudes in everyday life that create stereotypes of the gifted population having social and emotional difficulties. During my work, I have gathered such ‘gems’ from discussions with non-specialists (some of them also come from specialists, too!), that can be classified under two categories.

‘Pseudo-psychological’ beliefs:

  • ‘gifted individuals have emotional problems because their gift causes misbalance’
  • ‘the gifts of the gifted are developed to make up for their deficits, as a defence’
  • ‘giftedness and craziness are very close’.

‘Pseudo-philosophical/theological’ beliefs:

  • ‘when you are so talented, you can’t be totally happy’
  • ‘you can’t have everything in life’
  • ‘God gave them a difficult mission’.

The media, too, love the image of the gifted and talented having social and emotional difficulties. In fact, the images of the ‘tortured’ artists and mad scientists are two of the most favourite and well-received images in the media. The best-selling stories of George Best, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Truman Capote, Vincent Van Gogh, and, more recently, of troubled Britney Spears, Whitney Houston or Pete Doherty, show that ‘falling stars’ are very popular with the tabloids. One favourite phrase often met in these stories is that they were ‘punished for their success’, implying that someone who has done well in financial, professional (and often sexual) terms, can’t possibly have happiness as well – this would be completely unfair!

What is emotional intelligence?
As a specific psychological construct, emotional intelligence was studied initially by Mayer, Salovey and Caruso (1999). However, it was with Daniel Goleman’s book that it gained wide popularity as a concept and was received with great enthusiasm by those becoming increasingly judgemental of intelligence testing and the cognitive aspects of intelligence. What does this concept refer to? According to Goleman, emotional intelligence is ‘…the capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves and for managing emotions effectively in others and ourselves.’ Mayer, Salovey and Caruso define it as a set of abilities to:

  • accurately perceive emotions in oneself and others
  • use emotions to facilitate thinking
  • understand emotional meanings
  • manage emotions.

Bar-On (1997) defines the emotionally intelligent person as being: ‘…generally optimistic, flexible and realistic and fairly successful in solving problems and coping with stress without losing control.’

Although there is an increasing body of research on emotional intelligence, there are problems with scientific validity due to disagreement on how to define EI, and how to accurately measure it. Other criticism refers to potential overlap with the personality construct and a very strong argument suggests that social and emotional competences may vary a lot across cultures, since the definitions used so far are based mostly on western values.

Relationship between ‘intelligences’
A study performed for a doctoral degree at the University of Exeter asked 98 primary school teachers from across the UK to fill in a multiple intelligences checklist for children in their class, whom they thought of as being socially and emotionally gifted. This study aimed to explore the relationship of interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence (which more or less correspond to what is included in the broad concept of ‘emotional intelligence’) with the other intelligences, to give evidence of the socio-emotional abilities in relation to the other areas of competence.

The results of this study show that there was a positive, medium correlation among all areas of ability (‘intelligences’). A factor analysis showed that the interpersonal and the intrapersonal intelligences, as described in this instrument, were not clearly separated and there was a lot of overlap between them. This makes sense, as the way one feels about oneself is reflected onto social behaviour and, similarly, social interactions have an impact on the intrapersonal abilities. These findings suggest that the inter/intrapersonal abilities correlated with other intelligences. In simple words, the children nominated by their teachers as socially-emotionally gifted showed high ability in other areas.

Emotional literacy inventory to identify social-emotional giftedness
The teachers were also asked to fill in an emotional literacy inventory for the same nominated children and 11 teachers volunteered to take part. They nominated in total 28 children as being socially and emotionally gifted. The aim of this stage of the study was a) to check if the emotional literacy scores would validate the teachers’ original nominations and b) to explore the assessment from other sources (parents, self). The scores from the emotional literacy checklists used (Southampton Psychology Service 2003), did not justify the teachers’ choices: in addition, significant differences were noticed across the scores that teachers, parents and the pupils gave. These discrepancies may have occurred because of the difficulty in observing social behaviour in large and busy classrooms, lack of time to observe, and to the fact that most teachers have not received training on emotional literacy.

Importance of emotional intelligence of gifted individuals
To return to the importance of the emotional competences of the gifted individuals, this particular population has additional needs. The theory of the over-excitabilities described by Dabrowski offers a greater understanding of the sensitivities and strengths of the gifted individuals.

To be gifted and talented often means that both senses and emotions are more acute, and this can be a two-sided coin. On the one hand, these individuals can have social and emotional gifts, and on the other hand they may be more prone to suffer from difficulties in these areas.

To use an example, Jeremy, one of the children of Joan Freeman’s (2001) sample in a follow-up interview as an adult confessed the difficulty of bearing the label of ‘gifted’:

‘Being labelled gifted has distorted my life. From the age of seven, my all-consuming thoughts were “Why am I so unhappy?” My gifts were associated with negative emotions. Alongside them were awful deficiencies in other areas which were exacerbated by my being seen as gifted. On the one hand I took pleasure in the applause and admiration that gave me a false confidence, but my personality problems ran alongside and were never noticed’.

Of course, social and emotional difficulties experienced by gifted children and adults may not just be the result of inherent characteristics of their giftedness. There is a variety of external factors, too, that can facilitate the flourishing of gifts or bring a negative influence (see table below).

External social and emotional influences

Positive influences Negative influences
Good, supportive provision in school, with lots of opportunity to develop and achieve, and appropriate recognition Frustration from limited resources and lack of provision
Stable family life providing love and security Family problems (bereavement, divorce, etc)
Adequate finance/resources for everyday needs and additional learning opportunities (eg school outings, membership fees)    Disadvantaged socio-economical background
Reliable friendships Rejection from peers, bullying
Good health; stamina, vitality Illness (physical, mental)

It seems that the gifted and talented population is a complex one in terms of their social and emotional abilities profile. On one hand, they may have increased leadership skills, be able to work in an independent way, be self-critical and able to motivate themselves; the gifted and talented often have a great ability to empathise with others, are sensitive, dedicated and have a great sense of justice. On the other hand, they are often perceived as being perfectionists, isolated, over-reacting, difficult individuals who find it hard to handle their difference and create a healthy social life. It’s all about difference, actually, and how both the person and the environment encounter this difference. 

As a result, what is needed is close monitoring of children’s emotional state and social life, at home and at school, so that possible problems are identified early on. In this way, possible gifts in these areas can be enhanced and developed further and any problems can be addressed. For this to act effectively, relevant training on EI is essential for teachers, to enable them to recognise both gifts and difficulties and develop strategies for helping young people to come to terms with ‘being different’.


  • Bar-On, R (1997) EQ-i: BarOn Emotional Quotient Inventory, Toronto, Canada: Multi-Health Systems.
  • Clinkenbeard, P R (1991) ‘Unfair expectations: A pilot study of middle school students’ Comparisons of gifted and regular classes’, Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 15, 56–63.
  • Coleman, LJ (1985) Schooling the Gifted, Knoxville, TN: Addison-Wesley.
  • Freeman, J (2001) Gifted Children Grown Up, London: David Fulton Publishers.
  • Goleman, D (1995) Emotional Intelligence, London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • Masse, L, and Gagne, F (2002) ‘Gifts and talents as sources of envy in high school settings’, Gifted Child Quarterly, 46, 15–29.
  • Mayer, JD, Caruso, D, and Salovey, P (1999) ‘Emotional intelligence meets traditional standards for an intelligence’, Intelligence, 27, 267–298.
  • McLeod, J, and Cropley, A (1989) Fostering Academic Excellence, Oxford: Pergamon Press.
  • McMann, N, and Oliver, R (1988) ‘Problems in families with gifted children: Implications for counselors’, Journal of Counseling and Development, 66, 275–278.
  • Plucker, JA, and Stocking, VB (2001) ‘Looking outside and inside: Self-concept development of gifted adolescents’, Exceptional Children, v67, 534-48.
  • Robinson, NM, and Noble, KD (1987) ‘Social-emotional development and adjustment of gifted children’, in MC Wang, MC Raynolds, and HJ Walberg (eds) Handbook of Special Education: Research and Practice, vol 4, 57–76 Oxford: Pergamon Press.
  • Roedel, W C (1986) ‘Socioemotional vulnerabilities of young gifted children’, Journal of Children in Contemporary Society,
  • 18, 17–29.
  • Southampton Psychology Service, Adrian Faupel (ed) (2003) Emotional Literacy – Assessment and Intervention, NFER Nelson.