Why Do So Many Highly Sensitive People Struggle with ‘Gifted Kid Syndrome’?

Image of burned out light bulbs illustrating the effects of gifted kid syndrome

Gifted kid syndrome can have serious, lasting consequence — and it may actually be rooted in sensitivity. 

Growing up, I had a pretty strong sense of who I was. Like many other highly sensitive people (HSPs), I was quiet, well-behaved, and performed well in school. From a young age, much of my sense of identity was wrapped up in these characteristics, because that’s the part of me that adults approved of and validated. 

Because of these traits, I was placed in my school’s gifted program, where once a week I was shipped off to another school with other gifted students to do special projects and enrichment activities. (I mostly remember a lot of logic puzzles, trivia games, and having to play the stock market in fifth grade, which went completely over my head).

In many ways, I am the same person now as I was then. For one, I still don’t understand the stock market. And I’ve also carried many of my innate traits and learned patterns with me into adulthood — my perfectionism, a tendency to overthink and overwork, and a habit of measuring my worth by my achievements. These qualities are often lauded in adults, but they undermine my happiness, and I’ve had to learn to recognize and manage them.

As it turns out, a lot of “former gifted kids” feel the same way. It’s a phenomenon that has been dubbed “gifted kid syndrome” or “gifted kid burnout.” For many, gifted kid syndrome can have serious, lasting consequences — and it may actually be rooted in high sensitivity.

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What is “Giftedness” — and How is it Linked to Sensitivity?

Giftedness is not easily or universally defined. According to the Davidson Institute, a nonprofit serving gifted children, gifted kids are defined as “those who demonstrate an advanced ability or potential in one or more specific areas when compared to others of the same age, experience or environment.” The Institute goes on to note that gifted children often share similar traits, such as:

  • Emotional intensity at a young age
  • Heightened sense of self-awareness
  • Highly developed curiosity
  • Excellent memory

Sound familiar? Many of these traits are often also possessed by HSPs. In fact, there is significant overlap between giftedness and high sensitivity. According to the Institute for Educational Advancement (IEA), another nonprofit serving gifted children:

“Gifted young people are often more aware of, stimulated by, and affected by their surroundings. [They] feel things with great intensity [and] experience the world in a different way. Emotional or physical reactions to events can last longer than expected and are often replayed in the child’s mind.”

The IEA calls these experiences of heightened stimulation “intensities” or “overexcitabilities” — but what they’re describing is high sensitivity. 

Research backs up the link between giftedness and sensitivity. In 2015, giftedness specialist Rianne van de Ven and clinical psychologist Elke van Hoof found that 87% of gifted adults score as highly sensitive people. A similar study, conducted by IHBV and Erasmus University in 2018, found that 77% of gifted people scored as highly sensitive using the criteria established by HSP expert Elaine Aron. In fact, Aron has herself been quoted as saying, “In my opinion, all HSPs are gifted because of the trait itself.”

Of course, labels can be limiting. Not all sensitive people will identify with the “gifted” label, nor will all gifted individuals identify as HSPs. But, given the strong link between the two, it’s likely that many of us HSPs, at some point in our lives, were labeled “gifted” because of our sensitive traits — and in recent years, there has been much discussion about the implications this label has, not only on children but on the adults they grow up to be.

What is ‘Gifted Kid Burnout’?

Burnout is defined as a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that can come with feelings like a complete loss of energy or motivation, a reduced sense of accomplishment, or losing your sense of your own identity.

While burnout is most commonly associated with stress at work, it can apply to other areas of life as well, such as parenting and romantic relationships — or school. In recent years, people have begun using the term to describe a particular type of burnout experienced by many gifted children and adults who were labeled “gifted” when they were younger. 

As Nikki Farnham, a writer for The Georgetown Voice, describes it:

“[Gifted kid burnout] refers to students who were placed in advanced-level classes early in their educational careers, only to discover that they can’t maintain the same degree of academic excellence as they get older. They’ve been straight-A students all their life, their personalities slotting perfectly into the spot at the top of the class. But mediocrity crept up on them, until they feel like they have failed their past selves.”

Like other types of burnout, “gifted kid burnout” (or “gifted kid syndrome”) is the result of long-term stress — in this case, brought on by the unique pressures and experience of being considered “gifted.” It is not a medical condition, but an internet term that has gained steam on social sharing sites in recent years. Because the concept originally took off as an online sensation, coined by young people, it has inevitably received some criticism.

But there’s a reason why the idea resonated with so many people — there is some truth behind it. In fact, it’s pretty common, on sites geared toward parents of gifted children, to find advice specifically meant to prevent this kind of burnout in gifted kids as they grow up. And highly sensitive kids may be especially at risk.

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HSPs Are More Likely to Have Gifted Kid Burnout

There are a few reasons why HSPs may be especially prone to burnout, in general:

  • Our nervous systems are more sensitive. It is easier for us to become overstimulated, which means we are more likely to get overwhelmed. External stimuli affect us more than others, which means we are constantly having to adapt — and over time, this can lead to burnout. 
  • We are naturally empathetic. This makes us susceptible to people-pleasing tendencies. We never want to let others down, so we will sometimes neglect our own needs to keep that from happening.
  • We have strong emotional reactions. Because HSPs process things deeply and feel emotions intensely, we can take minor setbacks, stressors, and criticism especially hard. And while we are used to adapting to these types of challenges, they do add up over time.

Because so many gifted individuals are also highly sensitive, it’s easy to see why they are prone to burnout. In fact, the Davidson Institute suggests that this sensitivity is precisely what is behind cases of “gifted kid burnout”:

“Gifted kid burnout adds a new dimension to the burnout experience because of their unique neurological make-up. Their perfectionism, asynchronous development, and over-excitabilities may feed into the burnout experience in a way that increases the intensity or duration of burnout.”

According to the Davidson Institute, this burnout often stems from the child finding their educational system “repetitive, unrewarding, without autonomy, unfair, or not aligned with their values.” It can also be due to the pressure many gifted kids feel to live up to the expectations of being “gifted.”

How Do I Know If I Have Gifted Kid Syndrome? 

Signs of gifted kid syndrome include:

  • Feeling cynical toward work, school, teachers or classmates
  • Disengaging from their favorite topics/interests or withdrawing from friends/family
  • Dreading school, clubs or other activities
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Changes in sleeping and eating habits
  • Feeling helpless or overwhelmed by small setbacks
  • Physical ailments, like headaches or digestive issues
  • Being unmotivated to complete chores, assignments, or social obligations
  • A sense of futility, hopelessness or pessimism toward their future

Left unchecked, you can see how these challenges and attitudes in childhood could create issues for gifted HSPs later in life. Anecdotally, many adults who identify as “former gifted kids” say they have carried this burnout with them into adulthood. Many of them have voiced common experiences they attribute to “former gifted kid syndrome,” such as:

  • Getting frustrated when something doesn’t come easily to them
  • Feeling unprepared for the rigors of secondary education/not having the necessary study skills to succeed in college
  • Struggles with discipline, motivation, and work ethic
  • Identity challenges, such as not knowing who they are or how to measure their self-worth without academic validation
  • Pressure to live up to everyone’s high expectations, and/or feeling like a failure or like they’ve wasted their “giftedness”
  • Perfectionism
  • Imposter syndrome

Some “former gifted kids” have even shared that they received diagnoses of depression, anxiety, or ADHD later in life — issues they’ve struggled with since childhood but were masked by their temperament because they didn’t exhibit “typical behavior issues.” Of course, it’s worth noting that it is also possible for HSPs to be wrongly diagnosed with these disorders, so be careful not to make assumptions and to seek a professional opinion if you think you (or your child) may have an undiagnosed condition.

How to Overcome “Former Gifted Kid Syndrome” as an Adult

If you’re an HSP who was considered “gifted” in childhood, you might be able to relate to some of the experiences above. If that’s the case, here are a few reminders you might find helpful: 

  • Use self-talk and reframing to embrace failure and constructive criticism. (Here’s how to do that.
  • Seek internal validation instead of external validation. You can cultivate this with daily gratitudes or by setting goals for how you will feel rather than what you will accomplish. 
  • Be realistic about your goals and expectations for yourself. Remember to build downtime and unstructured free time into your life plan. 
  • Accept that real life requires real effort, and you can’t expect everything to come naturally to you. This seems obvious, but it’s hard for former gifted kids to internalize it because we are used to being good at things in school. 
  • Learn how to work with your sensitivity instead of against it.
  • Develop healthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress and overwhelm Yoga, meditation, journaling, physical activity, and creative outlets like art, music or writing are all great options
  • Prioritize your relationships. Put time and effort into your relationships with friends and family, and don’t work too hard at the expense of these relationships — in the long run, they are more important than your achievements

How to Prevent Gifted Kid Burnout in Sensitive Children

Fortunately, there are things parents and educators can do to help gifted children manage their sensitivity and avoid burning out:

  • Encourage a mind-body connection. Practices like meditation and yoga can be so beneficial for HSPs, and it is never too early to teach your child how to use these techniques to help manage stress and regulate their overstimulated nervous system.
  • Normalize having weaknesses — and model imperfection. Show your child that it’s okay to not be good at everything. When they don’t perform well on a test or struggle with a certain concept in school, let them know that that’s okay, and use it as an opportunity to show them how to improve a skill that might not come naturally to them.
  • Check in with your child and watch for issues like perfectionism, anxiety and depression. Make sure they know they can come to you when they’re overwhelmed and need a break.
  • Don’t overload your child with extra “work” — activities like extracurriculars, tutoring, etc. Make sure they have plenty of downtime to just be a kid. Prioritize doing things just for fun, and encourage growth in all areas — social, emotional, spiritual, and physical as well as intellectual. Find balance.

Sensitivity is a beautiful gift in and of itself. But we have some work to do to raise sensitive, gifted kids who are socially and emotionally healthy, well-rounded individuals. We need to support gifted HSPs so they don’t burn out, and learn to place value in our own gifts beyond our academic and work achievements.

As HSPs, we are naturally able to appreciate the beauty in our surroundings — in nature, music, and the arts. So, when you’re feeling burnt out, bored, or frustrated because life didn’t turn out the way you expected it to, take a deep breath, notice the world around you, and be kind to yourself. The gift of sensitivity will help you do that.

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