Entering into year three of the pandemic, burnout is on everyone’s lips. Originally defined by the World Health Organization as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” burnout has extended far beyond the cubicle. Whether the stressor is the grind of a nine-to-five or familial responsibility, burnout can reach all demographics, including children whose experience of constant upheaval has taken a notable toll on their mental health.
Within this unsettled landscape, gifted children face a set of challenges that contribute to their own form of burnout – one that has generated countless social media memes as well as heartfelt essays from grownups identifying as former gifted kids.
So, what is gifted kid burnout and what are the symptoms?
According to the Davidson Institute,
The definition of gifted child burnout is chronic exhaustion that stems from a mismatch between the individual and their current educational environment. While other forms of burnout might be tied to the workplace, or the emotional labor involved in care-taker roles, gifted child burnout is often tied to an educational system that the child finds repetitive, unrewarding, without autonomy, unfair, or not aligned with their values.
A gifted student experiencing burnout might demonstrate the following physical and emotional symptoms:
There’s no standard test that shows if your high-achieving kid is burnt out. If you’re seeing these symptoms, you’ll want to have conversations with your child as well as the adults in their life, whether that includes trusted teachers, a therapist or coaches. Since many of the symptoms of burnout overlap with other medical conditions, including anxiety, depression and adhd, you’ll want to consult your physician who may refer your child to additional specialists or testing.
Stress is a normal physiological response. It’s part of our evolutionary design to react with hormones at the first sign of a threat – but once the danger has passed, we need downtime to recover, or those helpful hormones can accumulate at unhealthy levels. When stressors pile on and eat into downtime, our body loses its ability to bounce back. Caught in a perpetual fight-or-flight, we feel listless, jumpy and distracted, unable to dedicate our energy to complex or rewarding tasks.
For gifted kids - usually highly attuned to the world around them - those stressors often come from their educational environment when, as the Davidson institute explains, it doesn’t align with their values. Rote work, transactional disciplinary systems, and grading that rewards memorization over mastery are all part of traditional school environments that might make a child feel disempowered and, ultimately lead to burnout.
However, one of the problems specific to gifted kids is the label ‘gifted and talented,‘ which is assigned to kids in public schools at a young age. Identification for gifted education, plays into a fixed mindset – using the terminology coined by psychologist Carol Dweck. The identification process, which usually happens in elementary school, is often a recipe for struggles in middle school or high school, when kids inevitably bump up against something they can’t do “naturally,” but haven‘t built the work ethic to confront the challenge.
According to one self-identified “poster child” burnt-out gifted kid in her blog, “The fixed mindset opposes the growth mindset’s idea of developing traits through effort; Dweck describes this fixed mindset as believing ‘success is about being more gifted than others, that failure does measure you, and that effort is for those who can’t make it on talent.‘“ Dweck claims that any advice about hard work being the key to success can’t be put into practice by anyone with a fixed mindset, because “their basic mindset… is telling them something entirely different.”
From this perspective, stressors lurk around every corner for the straight A student: missing a single point on a quiz, the slightest correction to a comment in class, a hint of red pen on an otherwise glowing essay. By the time a student experiences a new level of advanced math or a project that requires next-level thinking, they haven’t developed the necessary skills to figure out how to climb even a slightly steeper hill – and it’s even harder to push yourself when the fear of failure is hanging over you. (Remember those stress hormones are primed to help us survive, not win debate club.) Oftentimes, this perfectionist mentality will give way to procrastination, which will eventually impact the student’s grades and erode their self worth.
While not a substitute for medical treatment, the following tips can help you work with your child to holistically address the factors that may be contributing to their burnout – or catch minor stressors before they lead to full-blown burnout.
Before taking any kind of action, get a 360-look at their life, starting from their schedule. Is there a day or two (or seven?) that’s jam-packed that leaves them without gas? Have they let go of activities they enjoy in favor of activities they “should” do? Or maybe they advanced to a new level of a sport or hobby, substituting pressure where they once had free play. Has there been a major change in their energy and behavior or has it been gradual?
As you do this, check in with their coaches, teachers and mentors. The more information you can gather, the more likely you are to find the root cause(s) and create a fitting solution.
If part of burnout stems from a mismatch between a child’s values and their environment, they have to be a central part of the solution. Whatever approach(es) you take, think about the kid you have and how you can support them. On the one hand, think about the things they love: arts, athletics, nature, hanging out with friends. On the other hand, consider their temperament: are they more of an introvert or an extrovert? Do they thrive in small or large groups, or one-on-one?
Part of developing a growth mindset requires helping your child to inch out of their comfort zone: A big fish in a small pond might benefit from learning to swim in a lake; but you wouldn’t want to put a freshwater fish into the ocean.
Self-expression is an important part of learning to process stress. Provide your child nonjudgmental language to talk about feelings so that they can get to the root of what’s going on. Kids will sometimes mask more complicated fears behind statements like, “I’m bored.” So get them talking about what they mean specifically, and let them know it’s okay to be mad, sad, scared, jealous or disappointed – the goal is to experience and process those emotions, without taking our feelings out on others.
To ground and de-stress, consider introducing them to a mindfulness practice, like deep breathing (even a minute can help!), martial arts, yoga or guided meditation. (Lots of versions are designed specifically for kids.) Your child may benefit from low-stakes activities that engage the senses like coloring while listening to music - try it with them, and you might see benefits yourself.
Whatever activities you choose, help them incorporate it into their routine, so it becomes second nature. Transitional moments like first thing in the morning, right after school or before bedtime, allow you to “habit stack,” using an already developed habit to teach yourself to incorporate something new.
All kids benefit from play. Spending time in nature, playing tag and building forts are not time-wasters but essential for well being, as studies show. A kid who is suffering from burnout has all the more need to do the things that light them up. Commit to regular, unstructured free time, where your kid can do something without a specific goal, just because it feels good to them.
If we define burnout as “a mismatch between the individual and their current educational environment,” you may want to examine their educational system and see if there are aspects that your child “finds repetitive, unrewarding, without autonomy, unfair, or not aligned with their values.”
If your child’s school environment needs an overhaul more than just a few tweaks, they may benefit from an option like Prisma, where our clearly articulated values directly inform curriculum, from the project-based six-week cycles to the badges that recognize student mastery. Prisma’s personalized approach enables gifted learners to learn at their optimal level, rather than an artificial grade level: a 5th grader might leap into 8th grade math and a budding writer might dive deep into their first novel. As a learner-driven school, we encourage kids to use their interests as a starting point, so that they feel intrinsically motivated to go deeper.
In a recent entrepreneurship project, students turned passions like horses, baking, writing and computer programming into startups that they researched, tested and developed. Our learning process is designed to foster a growth mindset: No one turns in ‘perfect’ work the first time. Each step is about letting go of perfectionism and adjusting to a “design thinking” mentality that’s all about iteration and improvement -- not validation. Our project-based, real-world curriculum has the dual benefit of making learning feel more relevant, purposeful and exciting to gifted learners and making it harder for them to ‘coast’ (a gifted learner may ‘ace’ a test with little effort, but there is not such easy path to achieving a well-executed project).
Those values are reflected in our holistic student assessments. Research has shown that letter grades encourage high performers to do ‘just enough’ to get an A, so instead, Prisma learners receive detailed, continuous feedback from their personal mentor coach, encouraging them to revise until they’ve achieved their personal best. The mentor-coach model has proven effective at getting gifted learners to re-engage in their learning and strive to achieve their personal best because their regular one-on-one and small group interactions allow them to deeply understand the interests, strengths, goals and development needs of their students.
Helping a burnt out child requires energy and focus – and it’s not something a parent should go at alone. (Caregiver burnout is every bit as real as gifted kid burnout.) Your child’s teachers can offer insight, and if your school has a gifted specialist, ask their advice as well. Other trusted adults, including therapists or community mentors, can lend a hand – or an ear – and may have different perspectives. Let people know what your child is struggling with – and how they can help.
On the flip side, look around your environment for people who - often without realizing it - are contributing to the problem. If there are coaches, friends or relatives who are adding pressure, it’s okay to set boundaries: They don’t have to attend every study group or go to extra practices.
Our kids are always watching us: not just what we do, but how we talk to ourselves when we face a challenge or make a mistake. If you catch yourself using fixed mindset language like, “I’m not very good at…” try changing it to, “I need to practice more…” Consider starting a new activity - maybe something your child enjoys, that you’ve never excelled at. Let them be your teacher as you show them how you’re making an effort to do a little bit better today than you did yesterday.
As a chronic condition, burnout didn’t happen overnight; it won’t resolve itself overnight either. Be patient with your child and yourself as you work together to set up the environment that will help them thrive.