Raising a Well-Adjusted Gifted Child: The Value of Promoting Social Intelligence

Author: Steven Pfeiffer 
Citation: From The SENG Update, July 2007

In my private practice, I frequently get requests from parents desperate for advice on how to help their gifted son or daughter learn to get along better with others. Many otherwise extraordinarily bright and talented young children display a range of deficits in the area of social skills—with peers, siblings and even adults. The bestselling author Daniel Goleman ¹ would consider these as problems with the gifted child’s social intelligence.

In my clinical and consulting practice, I have come to appreciate that social skill problems among the gifted are not as uncommon as we’d like to believe. Intellectually precocious and highly talented children are not necessarily blessed with advanced, or even age-appropriate, social skills. This fact comes as a great surprise to many of the parents of gifted children with whom I consult. However, this really shouldn’t come as a revelation to any parent.

A child can be book or school smart but not necessarily people or playground smart. Getting along with others consists of a variety of social and interpersonal skills that are first learned in the family. Getting along with others is not an innate ability (like musical pitch, verbal-conceptual ability, or mathematical precocity) that unfolds naturally without needing guidance or formal instruction from parents. These social intelligence skills require instruction, teaching and coaching by parents (and others.)

I recently worked with parents from Atlanta who were concerned that their 7-year old intellectually gifted son, Brian (not his real name) was having significant behavioral problems. By first grade, Brian had already earned at his school the distressing reputation as a gifted but troubled child. Brian’s teacher and the headmaster of the private school concurred that this young man had serious problems getting along with peers and did not respect other students’ property. The school reported that Brian was reluctant to wait his turn or sit quietly when fellow students were speaking, and was generally uncooperative and bossy in group activities. Perhaps most perplexing to his parents, Brian showed little respect for adult authority.

My initial observation of Brian confirmed the picture of a willful and argumentative child who resisted rules and social conventions. His parents appeared embarrassed with their son’s disagreeable way of behaving; their disappointment and frustration was palpable during our first meeting. My diagnostic impression was of an intellectually bright boy with significant social skill problems.

I did not view Brian as a troubled young man with deep-seated psychiatric problems. There was no evidence in his medical, developmental or family history for such a diagnosis. What did impress me, however, was Brian’s lack of age appropriate social skills. His social skill deficits were substantial. If there were a social intelligence test, I suspect his “social-IQ” would fall at least 40 points below his level of intellectual giftedness. (Reportedly his IQ was in the 130-135 range.)

My approach to helping Brian focused on encouraging his parents to teach this bright young child important social skills that he had not yet learned. Treatment consisted of nine sessions – the first three in my consulting office and the remaining sessions by follow-up conference call. I first focused on helping Brian’s parents recognize and accept the philosophy that even parents of gifted children need to establish and enforce age-appropriate limits with their child. My work then focused on instructing Brian’s parents in ways to teach their son social etiquette and good sportsmanship, how to tolerate frustrating situations and delay immediate gratification, and what to do when peers tease, name call and bully – which had, unfortunately, become a problem as a result of Brian’s insufferable behavior. Many of the techniques that Brian’s parents successfully employed are described in the book, Early Gifts: Recognizing and Nurturing Children’s Talents. ²

The basic ingredients for teaching social intelligence include:

  • Set a good example in the home. There is nothing more influential than teaching by quiet example.
  • Make family rules and standards clear and expectations high, but not unreasonable.
  • Talk to your child about right and wrong. Discuss the way the social world works and the way people ought to live and interact with one another. Talk about the value of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings and intentions (empathy). Don’t preach, but rather, engage your child in Socratic dialogues at a level that he or she can understand.
  • Look for warning signs. You may want to consult with a professional if your child displays any of the following behaviors: your child doesn’t have a friend; plays too aggressively; is easily upset or quickly becomes angry or bossy; doesn’t share or respect others’ property; doesn’t get along well in group situations; rarely compromises; shows little empathy for others’ feelings; acts discourteously.¹ Daniel Goleman made the term “emotional intelligence” part of our daily lexicon with his bestselling book,Emotional Intelligence.
    ² See the chapter by Pfeiffer entitled, “Psychological considerations in raising a healthy gifted child” in Early Gifts: Recognizing and Nurturing Children’s Talents (2003). Waco, Texas: Prufrock Press.

Steven Pfeiffer, a SENG director, is a Professor in the Psychological Services in Education program at Florida State University. Professor Pfeiffer is lead author of the Gifted Rating Scales, coauthored the Devereux Scales of Mental Disorders and the Devereux Behavior Rating Scale-School Form, and recently co-edited Early Gifts: Recognizing and Nurturing Children’s Abilities. Dr. Pfeiffer maintains a private practice where he works with children, adolescents and families.

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