We Are Killing Our Kids: An Explanation How Gifted Child Syndrome Begins



Childhood has never been harder in modern American history. The age of innocence has been increasingly polluted by “adultification” of children’s sports, a festering mental health crisis, a life-changing COVID-19 pandemic, and a grim economy contributing to rising child poverty rates. A more insidious affliction, however, has been trickling into the mental health crisis of children. “Former gifted-child syndrome,” also called “gifted-kid burnout,” is not a medically recognized condition but is, without a doubt, an indicator of a disturbing pattern in adolescent academics and development.

Though the effects former gifted child syndrome have are rather uniform, the way in which individuals get to that state differ. There are, however, two main courses of development for the syndrome: the burn out scenario and the identity crisis scenario (neither of which is mutually exclusive.


The Burn-Out Scenario

The first scenario is where a young child displays a natural talent for intellectual, creative, and/or athletic abilities. This child, usually by the direction of their parents, then packs their schedules with an exhausting amount of activities such as music lessons, sports practices; anything to build human capital, really. A 2008 study by Don Sabo for the Women’s Sports Foundation found that many kids start playing on sports teams before they even start school. This pressure by parents, peers, and coaches to constantly push themselves to be better leads to two very crucial effects.

The first is that these children dedicate so much time to improving their human capital that they lack the time to develop crucial skills usually developed in childhood. For instance, an overly-rigid schedule blocks the development of self-discipline and self-autonomy. An emphasis on the unacceptability of failure raises kids to become inflexible, perfectionist, and anxious adults. These children may be developing their skills in soccer or piano, but they are not developing their skills in being human.

The second impact of this breed of childhood is that an activity a child enjoys will decay into a stressor. For example, a young child may enjoy doing ballet and so their parents sign them up for lengthy practices and lessons. Though the child is excited to do ballet at first, they will arrive to a climate that prioritizes a painful, damaging idea; anything less than winning is unacceptable. For the child, then, the focus of the activity becomes less about having fun and more about perfecting skills; and of course, who wants to participate in an activity they find boring? 

Except, it doesn’t just become boring; it becomes a fountain of stress. Children are heavily encouraged to pick one or two extracurricular activities and then stick with it for years. This is not only an overwhelming commitment for a young child to make but a trustworthy way to turn a hobby into a job. These kids learn that they cannot be an adequate violin player enjoying themselves; they should be exceptional professionals, enjoyment be damned. Therefore, kids in this scenario learn to associate their hobby with stress and with letting others down by failing.

According to Sabo’s study, 45% of students that start a sport later quit it. The reasons for some of these dropouts endorse the burn-out pattern; the leading reasoning for dropping out at 39% was that the child “was not having fun” with 15% of players leaving the sport because they weren’t “a good enough player.” When a kid finally quits the activity that they now hate, the negative effects from their oversaturation into an activity have already solidified.

Former-gifted-child syndrome then develops; the child is so emotionally and physically exhausted that they don’t wish to (and often don’t) attempt to advance themselves as they once did. They are so tired from their nonstop, micro-managed time in an activity that once they leave it, they don’t have the will (or want) to be involved in other activities and sometimes, even in relationships with others. They become detached and withdrawn which in turn often makes them depressed and anxious. By this point in their life, these children have become emotionally detached from their own sense of self and discouraged from developing themselves whether it be academically, intellectually, or socially as a result of their self-perceived feelings of failure, laziness, and lack of talent. 


Identity Crisis Scenario

The basic pattern of this scenario is a child with intellectual or creative talent spending their early childhood being affirmed through verbal praise and/or tangible achievements (such as winning a competition). 

In this scenario, a child displays natural talents, abilities, and/or intelligence at an early age. Due to this, adults, from parents to teachers, give the child a hefty amount of praise for these skills, often singling them out for their advanced skills. The child then begins to associate their self-worth with their academic achievements and the opinions of others. They base their self-esteem in the fact that they are “better” than others and loved by adults for it.

Due to their natural talent, however, they fail to learn how to, well, learn. They are so used to innately already knowing what to do and how to do it that they don’t develop their skills in asking questions (especially to others), in dealing with/accepting/learning from failure, and in learning how to study for tests and quizzes. For a while, this isn’t an apparent problem but when the child’s peers begin to catch up in skill and talent, the process of burnout begins. Because the child hasn’t learned how to learn and has stagnated in ability, they quickly fall from being the top in their class to something far more devastating; mediocre. And as they cease to be the best of the best, the praise and status that they based their self-worth on disappears. They decide to identify themselves as failures; as people who could’ve been great but now never will.

This not only leads to a decimation of self-worth, but also of motivation. After all, if this child can’t be the best, then why try at all? The long-term effects associated with the identity-crisis scenario of the identity crisis scenario is poor self-worth, poor academic performance, lack of motivation, and depression.



By identifying the ways that former gifted child syndrome begins, the adults that help shape childhoods can prevent their devastating long term effects.