Being Unusually 'Gifted' Can Take A Severe Psychological And Emotional Toll On Children

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Children in a Massachusetts classroom. (Chitose Suzuki/AP)
Children in a Massachusetts classroom. (Chitose Suzuki/AP)

Tom, born into a working class family outside of London, was fascinated with theoretical astrophysics, particularly with black holes and their space-time-continuum link to white holes. He was 5 years old at the time.

He's one of the kids and families profiled by writer Maggie Fergusson in her "Curse of Genius" article in the Economist's 1843 Magazine. The piece describes the isolation, psychological and social torment experienced by extremely gifted children, and the toll it takes on the kids' and their families' lives.

Host Robin Young talks to Fergusson and to Chrissie, Tom's mother, who says sometimes she can't cope with the psychological toll her son's intelligence takes on his well-being. She says it's almost like he has "a really good working adult's brain in a child."

"I just want him to be happy," Chrissie says. "And there are moments — he is happy sometimes. There are things that really make him happy. But in general, it's hard. I don't know why you would want this for your child."

Tom struggled with a bout of depression when he was about 5 years old, but he came out of it, Chrissie says. Now, it's come back in a more existential way.

"And at the minute he has got kind of existential depression, which is slightly more worrying about world and and why we're here and existence, and there's no answer," she says. "And it's just managing and trying to distract him from things like that."

"He sees the bigger picture," Chrissie explains. "So for him, it's almost like he just seems to sort of second guess everything, and he analyzes. He can't get on with just being a child and just play."

Interview Highlights

On how Tom became the target of one of his teachers

"When he was in his school, there was a couple of times where he'd come out and in front of all the parents, she patted him on the head and said, 'He really struggled with his math today.' And she was giving him math that you'd give to a sort of 15, 16-year-old — and he was six at the time. And funny enough he loved it, and he could do it, but yes, he wasn't getting everything right. There's real bitterness. He could see through it. He could see the bitterness. I just don't understand why as a teacher you wouldn't relish a child that just wants to learn."

On Tom's depression and suicidal thoughts

"When he was about 5, he said to me that he felt like he didn't want to be here. And he just said, 'I’ll repeatedly bash my head against the wall until it's over.' And then you know, he works on it and it kind of went, you know, the depression did go. But then it just come back, and it's come back recently. It's horrendous. And the trouble is that there are a lot of people that don't take it seriously because they just think, 'They're a child. So what are they miserable about?' "

On how watching "Young Sheldon" and "The Big Bang Theory" helps Tom

"I think young watching 'Young Sheldon' really helps. ... He watches 'Young Sheldon' and 'The Big Bang Theory.' That's actually really how, I think, he realizes that when he's older, he will have a group of friends that get him, which is great. You know, I think he can kind of see that it will happen. It's just he's got a little bit of time to wait."

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on June 3, 2019.

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