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Why Smart Kids Struggle

Updated: Apr 26


Children and teens who are intellectually gifted, artistically, or musically minded, highly verbal, and/or overall unique thinkers are not exempt from emotional illness and injury.


young girl playing the violin with a music teacher

In fact, in my experience as a therapist specializing in working with these types of young folks, my sense is that they are prone to extremely intense emotions and challenges. Whether it be difficulty regulating feelings and reactions, pervasive perfectionism, or having a hard time making or maintaining relationships, the struggle is real.


Here are five ways in which highly intelligent and/or creative young people struggle:

#1: They face intense self-imposed and external pressure to excel.

Parents and teachers of bright young people tend to notice and point out their exceptionalities from a young age. A student may be placed in a “gifted” program very early on and be labeled with descriptors like “brilliant,” “genius” and “prodigy.” A standard of greatness becomes solidified and internalized, creating a tendency toward anxiety and perfectionism for the young person. Parents, teachers, and peers, even in wanting the best for the child, may also apply pressure that the young person perceives as too much, though it is usually the student who is usually hardest on him or herself. The cycle of pressure tends to look like this:

the cycle of pressure pie chart

#2: Their “big” thoughts and topics can drive a wedge between them and their peers.

The thoughts swirling around in the highly creative/intelligent young person’s mind can look different from what the average person their age is thinking about. While other children are playing with toys without a worry in the world, our highly creative/intelligent young people are thinking about existence, morality, and deeper meaning. The creative brain can dream up disaster in vivid detail, activating the body’s stress response. This anxiety, which certainly includes social anxiety, can make it difficult to connect.

#3: They have different—often great!—ideas, opinions, habits, and methods.

Our creative problem-solvers often pride themselves in approaching life in a different way than the majority. This can lead to some conflict, especially between parent and child. A parent may have a very strong idea of how a child should do something, which may look very different from the child’s perspective. Conforming to standardized or others’ ways of doing things creates lots of angst for them, as they often pride themselves on being their own individual person. This can be perceived as oppositional or contrarian and can lead to tension at school, with peers, and at home.


#4: They are inadvertently exposed to mature content sooner than their peers.

Highly creative/intelligent thinkers thrive on learning and obtaining new knowledge. Their curiosity fuels them, and they often know exactly where to turn to get answers—largely the internet. If a young person’s curiosity is piqued by something, they may search it up, only to not be able to “unsee” what they learned. These types of young folks tend to have an “intellectual age” much higher than their chronological age, making it easy for adults to forget that they are just kids sometimes. Though direct conversations or through overhearing, the young person tends to be in tune with, understand, and internalize content such as marital or financial stress.

#5: Difficulties—such as learning disorders or other diagnoses—may fly under the radar because their strengths mask their struggles or vice versa.

Children and teens who are outwardly intelligent/creative tend to impress adults, making it difficult to detect an inner challenge. The child’s strengths such as their musicality, amazing art, great grades, or high verbal ability could very well mask something they are struggling with such as anxiety, depression, dyslexia, ASD, or ADHD. Conversely, adults may easily detect a student’s inattention, learning issue, or executive function disruption on the outside without paying much attention to their brain’s unique strengths. “Twice exceptionality” refers to students who are intellectually gifted as well as at least one learning disorder.



“Smart” AKA highly intelligent and/or creative kids certainly do face challenges that are worthy of intervention and support. Treatment in the form of psychotherapy and executive functioning coaching can work really well for these children and teens. Types of talk therapy approaches like CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) tend to be very effective, as they often have the self-awareness and verbal ability to process and problem-solve. Please reach out to our team at The Conative Group to see if one of our clinicians could be the right fit for your highly intelligent/creative loved one.


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