10 ways to boost a gifted child's confidence

Supporting your gifted child
Being academically gifted can put a strain on your child’s emotional wellbeing, so how can you spot if they’re struggling and build their self-esteem?

It’s easy to assume that more able children should be overflowing with confidence. But actually, children with high learning potential are more susceptible to low self-confidence than others.

‘Our 48 years of experience has shown us that the higher a child’s ability, the more confidence issues they may have,’ explains Denise Yates, Chief Executive of Potential Plus UK, the operating name of the National Association for Gifted Children. ‘These can be triggered by anything from a lack of understanding from other children to isolation to hypersensitivity to serious bullying.’

Boosting gifted children's confidence: what’s the problem?

There are three main factors that may affect a gifted child’s confidence.

Perfectionism Gifted children tend to set themselves high standards. ‘The problem is that sometimes these standards are so high that the child can never meet them,’ Denise says. ‘These children can go into meltdown if they get a spelling wrong.’

Hypersensitivity Children with high learning potential can be very sensitive to criticism, rejection and isolation. ‘Often, their games are so complicated that other children don’t want to play with them, which can affect them very badly,’ says Denise. ‘They also think more deeply than other children, which leads to worry and anxiety.’

Asynchronous development Your seven-year-old may be able to read books intended for teenagers, but that doesn’t mean they have the equivalent level of maturity. ‘Gifted children’s cognitive ability is often much more developed than their social and emotional skills,’ explains Denise. ‘People start to forget about their age and treat them as mini adults, imposing unrealistic expectations.’

Building your gifted child’s confidence involves balancing their learning ability with their social and emotional needs. So how can you ensure you’re looking after their self-esteem as well as their academic achievements?

1. Praise the effort, not the ability

Rather than focusing on your child’s ability, praise the effort they make. So when they get full marks in their mental maths test, instead of saying, ‘Wow, you are so clever at maths!’ try saying, ‘You’ve worked really hard on learning those formulas – well done!’

2. Acknowledge their age

Gifted children are often treated as if they’re older than they actually are. ‘This is a particular problem at school, where children may be used as “mini teachers”, helping their classmates with work,’ Denise says. Recognise that they’re still learning to regulate their behaviour and emotions, even if you feel they should be able to articulate their feelings rather than throwing a tantrum.

3. Teach them to cope with getting things wrong

One of the most valuable things you can teach your child is that it’s okay not to be perfect. A good way to do this is to try something new as a family, like roller skating or photography, knowing that you’re all likely to struggle at first. ‘This helps your child learn how it feels to not be so good at something, in a supportive environment, which builds resilience,’ Denise explains.

4. Provide challenges at home

Gifted children are often under-stimulated at school, which can damage their self-confidence and lead to them becoming bored and even depressed. You can help to counter this by extending them at home. ‘Research projects and creative tasks are easy to set up and provide an excellent way to stretch and challenge your child,’ Denise says.

5. Tap into their interests

Many gifted children have areas of particular interest, and having to keep their enthusiasm – or even obsession – under control at school can knock their confidence. If your child is passionate about space, dinosaurs or electric circuits, give them plenty of time and resources to explore these at home, whether that’s through books, the internet, extracurricular clubs or weekend outings.

6. Facilitate play

Children with high learning potential may struggle with friendships because other children perceive them as ‘different’. Encourage friendships by inviting other children to play, and be on hand to guide your child: setting up non-competitive tasks such as baking or craft can help them to bond on a more level playing field.

7. Don’t make comparisons

It’s easy to hold your child up as an example to others, particularly their siblings – ‘Why can’t you just concentrate on your homework like your brother?’ Try to avoid this: rather than building self-esteem, it could lead to your child ‘dumbing down’ so their abilities are less noticeable.

8. Give them down time

Trying to engage your child in intellectual activities all the time – even if they’re unconnected to schoolwork, like learning an instrument – can give them the message that they are only valued for their achievement and ability. Overscheduling can also lead to anxiety and sleep problems, which in turn affect confidence and wellbeing. Remember that your child needs time to play, watch TV, potter around outside and mess about with friends or siblings.

9. Be positive and proactive with school

It’s important to work together with your child’s school. ‘Often, parents are concerned about being seen as pushy, but you know your child best,’ Denise says. ‘It’s common for gifted children to seem like model students at school because they’re trying to be compliant, when actually, they’re bored or unhappy, so if you feel your child’s needs aren’t being recognised, you need to have a positive discussion with their teacher about what can be done.’

10. Get extra help if it’s needed

Sometimes, children with high learning potential need a little extra help in dealing with their emotions and building self-confidence. If you’re concerned about your child, talk first to their teacher, but be open to exploring other avenues of help, such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), accessible through your GP, and organisations like Potential Plus. ‘If we can build confidence and self-belief at primary school age, it sets children up for the rest of their life,’ Denise says.