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“Gifted Kid Burnout” and Barriers to Success

Rachel Decker, HS graduation | Photo submitted by Rachel Decker

Being smart was not just a part of Michaela Banville’s identity.  It was her identity.

“It was one of the only ways that I could ever mask the way that I felt, being called accelerated or advanced,” Banville said. “Anything could be taken away from me based off of the way I presented myself in a social situation–except my intelligence…and I really clung to that.”

Gifted kid label

Many people have been taking to social media to discuss the negative impact being labeled gifted at a young age has had on them. One “former gifted kid” struggles with how that label shaped them and how they broke free of its pressures to define her own self-worth in their passions.

Michaela Banville is a senior at Wright State University studying public health.  She is a recipient of WSU’s Valedictorian Scholarship for graduating top of her class at Berne High School in 2018.  

Early on, graduating with this status seemed to be her fate as from a young age she was separated from her classmates, labeled ‘gifted,’ and encouraged to pursue an advanced academic curriculum.

“I was 5 years old…there were three other students with me and we were reading separate material from the rest of the class,” Banville said. “It made me feel seen, made me feel recognized. Being labeled in that way made me feel that I had to always maintain it.”

And maintain it she did.  From middle school through high school her GPA never dropped below a 4.0.  At the same time, Banville also participated in numerous extracurricular activities and sports and held multiple leadership positions at her high school.  All of this was in an effort to continuously appear well-rounded, put together and like she was exceeding expectations.

Small fish in a big pond

However, when she continued her education at WSU, she quickly realized she was a small fish in a big pond.  Faced with the reality of her status in the “real world,” Banville found herself in the midst of an identity crisis.

“You get to this point where you’ve worked so hard, and you feel like you’re on the edge of being something…that doesn’t mean anything when you get into your biochem gen ed’s, and you encounter people that have already created a type of IV bag,” Banville said. “I was just like, why can’t I be them? I’m supposed to be them. I’ve been labeled as if I’m them my entire life.”

Confused and discouraged, she was forced to re-think everything she once thought about herself.  But she is not the only gifted person facing this problem.

Trending on social media

In recent months, a trend focussing on the phenomenon of “gifted kid burnout” has popped up on the social media app TikTok, spurring hundreds to share their perspectives on the topic.  

So-called “former gifted kids” are sharing videos of themselves reflecting on the negative influence being labeled gifted from a young age has had on them.  The effects they report run from an intense fear of failure, to hyper-fixation, to general anxiety disorders, but the most common sentiment is a lack of understanding of their identity separate from their perceived intelligence.

Gifted and talented programs in public schools are supposed to provide a more in-depth education to students who present a higher level of performance abilities than their peers, according to the National Association for Gifted Children.  Gifted students are separated from their classmates and encouraged to challenge themselves with more advanced learning materials, in some cases as early as pre-k.

While the intentions behind these programs are aimed at student support, they often inadvertently place excess pressure on young students to always be achieving at a high standard.  This pressure can, in effect, lead to intense burnout, among other mental health issues, according to the Davidson Institute for gifted children.  

The Gifted Identity

Rachel Decker is a senior health studies major at the University of Richmond (UR) in Richmond, Va.  From a young age, she was identified as a gifted child and often found herself clinging to that identity as a means of coping with depression.

“I remember everyone always called me smart,” Decker said. “Even though I was depressed, I still got some fleeting moments of happiness when someone would call me smart…it was like a reward and I liked getting those rewards.”

Michaela Banville at Wright State University’s 2018 signing day

Decker adopted her perception as a gifted child and internalized it, making it an extremely prevalent aspect of her identity.  When she and others began primarily defining her by her intelligence, it caused her to tie that aspect of herself to her self-worth.  This cycle is not uncommon among gifted children, according to Counceling the Gifted.

Initially, Decker saw herself on the medical school track with plans to be a doctor.  She began her studies at UR as a biochemistry and molecular biology major, feeling empowered by all of those who believed in her from her hometown of South Point, Ohio.

However, the highly competitive collegiate environment proved to be more intense than she anticipated and she eventually had to make the decision to switch majors.

“Switching from [biochemistry and molecular biology] to health studies…I kind of refused to at first,” Decker said. “I felt like a failure for not being able to complete biochemistry, UR’s hardest, most intensive major, and I didn’t really want to. But, after I switched, I felt a lot more relieved.”

Part of this relief came from letting go of the expectations others set for her and embracing what she was truly passionate about.  Now, Decker plans on using her degree in health studies to become a physician’s assistant (PA) and work for outreach programs aimed at assisting those in her community with limited access to healthcare. 

“A nonprofit might be in the cards for me,” said Decker. “PA school would provide me with more opportunities and more time to explore different avenues, like nonprofits and volunteering with cities and…health departments, starting health initiatives and pursuing other passion projects.” 

Decker’s story reflects how the built-up pressure from the expectations placed on many gifted kids early on in their life can often block them from truly understanding their purpose and their passion.  It took her some time, but she was eventually able to break through the mental barriers preventing her from fully understanding who she was.  She can now move forward with confidence knowing that she’s found where she is meant to be.

Banville has also come to embrace the many facets of her identity, seeing her value beyond her intelligence.

“These days, I see myself as someone who has earned my place at the table,” said Banville, “but it took time for me to learn that, no matter what, if one little thing goes wrong, it’s selling myself short to believe that I’m tanked.”