Gifted Adolescents

Editor's Note - This is not written by me. It is an anonymous submission. I thank the author for her contribution!

Cognitive Development: Identity and Self-Discovery

I couldn't believe my ears when I heard that we could base this assignment on any written records of our own experiences of adolescence! My mind awoke from its academia-induced slumber. My creative juices sprang to life again! So many images immediately sprang to my mind of all my records, note, diaries, journals, and other creations I have saved over the years. I knew I had thousands of pages (literally!) to work with. Although I still find it cheesy (and a bit embarrassing) to do an entire assignment using my old journals, I chose identity and self-discovery in the context of cognitive development as my topic. I am interested in identity in adolescence and how it changes because of subsequent changes in cognition. (Note: You will see why this topic struck such a loud chord with me, but I didn't fully understand why until I got halfway through the assignment, hence why I present my information in a kind of chronological order. You discover what I discover in the same order that I discovered it. So to begin with, I am interested in identity and changes due to cognitive development. Hang on for the ride). (Note #2: I decided not to edit any of the grammar, spelling, or choice of words in my journal entries. Hope you aren't offended easily).

For this assignment, I used three journals - one that runs from August 1994 to August 1995 (ages 14-15), the next from August 1995 to June 1997 (ages 15-16), and the last from June 1997 to June 1998 (ages 17-18). Basically, I cover grades 9 through 12. There are about 1,000 pages in total, so I chose my topic before digging through them. I summarized my class and text notes, generating a list of general concepts to observe. When I went through my journals, I bookmarked the places that had comments related to identity and to changes in cognition. I photocopied all the relevant pages (about 70 in total), and then typed out the specific quotes. A copy of these quotes is included, as well as the photocopies.

After looking at the general concepts listed in my notes I was skeptical about observing relevant examples in my texts. In retrospect, I knew these concepts applied in my life, but I doubted that I would find very many useful passages. Boy, was I wrong! I had many laughs over the things I had written, not only because it's funny to look back at yourself and the way you used to think but because I was an adolescent right out of the textbook! In other words, I was surprised to find no surprises! In general, my development fit right into what would be called "normal". Let's look closer at what I found out about my identity changes and cognitive development.

The very first entry gives you a very good idea of my so-called "baseline" identity and level of cognition:

August 23, 1994.
Well, today I got this diary for the solitary purpose being that I remember every last detail about highschool, classes, friendships, extra activities, and of course: GUYS! You heard it 'straight from the horses mouth'. I'm obsessed with guys! I don't know why, but it just kind of hit me around my 14th birthday, and now. Well, let's just say that it's been a blast!!

This entry is quite embarrassing. The whole thing is about all the guys I am "in love with". Actually, the whole journal is quite repetitive with a homogeneous style of thinking. This fits perfectly with what the text says: early formal operational thinkers perceive the world too subjectively and idealistically. I am very subjective in my impressions of others, especially when it comes to members of the opposite sex.

I don't care that I keep talking about him or that I get so excited or that I've even liked him for this long, but I can't help it. He's unlike anyone I've ever met. He's just the perfect guy! I love everything about him. I think he's my dream come true! (I almost wish I could say I made this up!)

and I am also very idealistic:

The most romantic thing a guy could ever do for me is to disguise a night out as a babysitting job so he'd get me to come and the only one there would be him! Wouldn't that be so cool?

Like most early adolescents, I am embarrassingly ego-centric, I got my [braces] off yesterday and now I look soooooo cool! Yep, I think I am superior now pretty much. That's my cocky side again. It's damn pushy lately.

I'm superficial, and entirely unable to step outside of my narcissistic identity!

(I read this whole diary over and it's so stupid. I was like such a loser at the beginning of the year. Well, now it's changed a lot. I'm so different than before and now I'm different than everyone else. I like have so many friends and I got rid of all my old loser friends.)

This continues through just about the whole grade nine journal. The very last thing in the journal marks the very beginning of my changes in cognition. Observe the following letter I (deliberately) wrote to myself:

August 22, 1995 Hey chic! How are you? Ya like I'm sure you don't know as if I don't know! So what do you want to do at Banff? God, I already know that. Why am I asking you? Who are "you" "You" is I, I am me, so why the hell am I talking to you? No, not you, myself. Yeah, it's kinda like that Yahweh dude, I am he who is. So like I am me, and I am you at the same time- It's like 2 people at once, but actually only 1 person - you! I mean me! Not you! Well, it is you, but I'm writing to me so it's the same thing. Hey, are you confusing yourself yet? Of course, it's pretty stupid to write out questions to yourself when it takes a second to actually think them. This wouldn't make sense to another person. They'd be a second person, but really a third because there's 2 of you! Actually one you and one me which equals two me's, but it's really only one. But we both know that, right?

It is unlikely for a child to write an article with such word play. It is the first entry where I observed thinking about thinking. In this exerpt, I am exploring the concept of journal writing by playing with the narrator's persona, something a child could not conceptualize very well. Two months down the road, I observed the beginnings of true formal operational thought and identity development. Because adolescents can now hypothesize and think of many possibilities, they often get confused and overwhelmed. I observed these exact things in a letter written to a friend:

October 10, 1995 - letter to Angelina
I have very many thoughts flying through my mind and unless I write them down right now I won't be able to tell which are reasonable. It's just like when you are dreaming, it seems real and it makes perfect sense, but you wake up and see how dumb it is. That is how I always get confused with EVERYTHING. When I keep all my thoughts and feelings inside, they seem right and they lead to really screwed up results in how I act and what I say.

An adolescent's new thinking abilities may seem almost out of control. I have to watch that things don't get into my subconscious because it has really crazy power over me. There are many causes and effects and many bad situations. The way I see it, you have to identify how to change then see if it would fix your problem and/or make you a better person.

Their emotional development often lags behind these new cognitive developments. My intellect level is way up, but my emotions are way too slow.

Adolescents may become overwhelmed with all the possibilities they can think of. I always try to think of all these big professional things, but then I look at how it could go wrong and then I just get confused at how everything can be right or wrong and good and bad all at once. And they can also feel like they are the only one who has ever had an experience like theirs.

I always wonder how people can know or be interested in something enough to write a whole book. I know I could write a whole book of how I think and I get everywhere but I don't get anywhere. I am alone in this world. WHY CAN'T I BE NORMAL?

I soon start to become quite hypocritical and unable to control my own emotions.

October 20, 1995 - letter from Angelina

What the hell is your prob[lem]?! Why are you being such a bitch to me? You are the one picking all these fights for no apparent reason. Maybe you shouldn't be so quick to criticize others and look for your own flaws. And don't be fooled, you do have them. Why do you reject everyone that wants to be your friend? You find fault with everyone and constantly make fun of them

October 22, 1995 - letter from Sarah

[You] got rid of your glasses and then this year you got off your braces, your self-confidence level sky-rocketed. So high to the point where you've become, if you don't mind me saying so, kinda cocky. I've gotten rather tired of it. You can't go around hating everyone. You have to be nicer to people or pretty soon you won't have any friends left.

But at the same time, I begin to think bigger thoughts - more abstract, more intuitive, and more original thoughts than before. I begin to think about abstractions like love, popularity, and parenting. I start to reflect on the reality of the world rather than just how I perceive it:

November 10, 1995
How can you tell when people love you? Do you confuse it with respect? Is it combined with neediness? How do you know when things are mutual?

February 11, 1996
Being popular doesn't mean that you are really liked, just accepted on a group level. Indeed, there are power in numbers. Power to throw down, bring up, or to JUDGE people. Why would anyone want to hurt on the inside just to look good outside?

March 6, 1996
Learning by consequence is THE BEST. After all, what kind of parent doesn't have faith that they have raised their child smart enough to make good choices? Most of all, stick with them and always give the child a second chance and the responsibility to think independently!! PLEASE DON'T PROTECT THEM FROM LEARNING HOW TO DEAL WITH LIFE!!! DON'T LET THEM CREATE THE SAME ILLUSIONS THAT YOU MADE!! OH, AND DON'T CREATE THE ILLUSIONS FOR THEM!!

By the time I turn sixteen, I am able to think at a formal operational level, but I am consumed by my own biases and pessimism.

June 15, 1996 - My 16th Birthday
Being an outcast is just how I am. My existence has no meaning to anyone. It's all a waste because no one will ever know. Just like an aborted baby. You never know what could've become of it. Just like me. I will never exist in the real world. I will never be special to anyone.

August 17, 1996
In conclusion, this year will suck. People suck. Band will suck.

But soon after grade eleven begins, I start to truly change. I record inspirational quotes, become more self-regulatory, and more positive!

"We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we create the world." ~Gautama Buddha

"A man is what he thinks about all day long." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

"When I examined myself and my methods of thought, I came to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge." ~Albert Einstein

"To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you like everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting." ~e.e. cummings

January 1, 1997
I must say, I've done a lot of personal growing this year. I haven't really changed, but become more complete. My traits are becoming more obvious. I don't focus as much on other people, like 'she's a snob' and 'she's a bitch', etc, but now I am so much more optimistic! I focus on who I like and pick out good things. I think that there will be a lot more changes pretty soon. Changes are good.

January 16, 1997
Maybe if I'd stop being so stubborn and pay attention to things I don't understand instead of pretending that they don't exist. Admit faults so they can disappear!

I really do have to look out for me. Only I can change me and only I can help myself reach goals.

I will start producing what is in my head and I will say what I think and feel because it will be so beneficial! I am going to stand up for myself because someone has to.

January 19, 1997
Help me to project and share my love for life with others. Let my enthusiasm be a light to others and a comfort to me.

January 24, 1997
1) I resolve to practice bassoon for at least 3 out of 5 nights.
2) I resolve to do my chemistry, study for the test and do well.
3) I resolve to read the English stories and study for a minimum of one hour for the Friday test.
4) I resolve not to spend all on lunch hour in the bathrooms and actually initiate a few conversations.

I noticed that I begin what James Marcia calls the period of 'reconstruction' of identity, where an adolescent attempts to resolve contradictions. I observe myself coming to terms with my own mixed feelings about my own identity. Late formal operational thought has more balance and accomodates the cognitive upheaval. In the following examples, I am very accepting of the contradictions in my life and in my identity:

February 17, 1997
The general feeling I got about this weekend - a very exciting, insightful, angry, intellectual, hungry, sober, creative, loving weekend.

April 13, 1997
There are so many me's! - crazy, weird, psycho me, intellectual me, selfish me, complainer me, analytical me, confused me, insecure me, affectionate me, curious me, funny me, unpredictable me, difficult me, bitchy me, racist me, sense of humour me, evil me, troublemaker me, ambitious me, conceited me, sympathetic me, sociable me, anti-sociable me, hardworking me, lazy me, impatient me ... okay enough of this. I know there are more.

In addition, I see VERY EXPLICIT signs of self-monitoring and self-regulation. I was highly interested in what the text calls metacognitive ability: using self-awareness to adapt and manage strategies to think and solve problems. I found a wonderful example of my developing metacognitive abilities. I was especially concerned with my mood fluctuations (which, according to the text, are also quite normal). I was concerned with developing my emotional intelligence - quite explicitly! I remember reading Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence around age 16 and being very inspired by it. I wanted to learn everything about this form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this to guide one's thinking and action. I explicitly taught myself about my own feelings and emotions.

I definitely gain a more concrete sense of what is valuable to me.

"Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life." ~ Confucius

June 8, 1997
What things give meaning to my life? Looking for love, creating things for myself and others to enjoy, performances / experiences, memories of me and Angelina, playing / staying young, and enjoying life!

August 4, 1997
All I want to do is share what I know and do what I can! Honest to God. I don't want to be a hero. I used to. But now, even if I knew that I had made a difference, thats all I want. All I really want. That is my definition of success.

August 16, 1997
Well, last year my thoughts were focused on handling lots of tasks, developing skills, making money, idealized loves, and schoolwork. Now my thoughts have turned towards love, friendship, laughter, independence, fun, creativity, socializing and emotion management.

When grade twelve began in September of 1997, I really began to question the world, and I began to coach myself to think differently about others.

September 15, 1997
If my feelings are weakened by the power of words, does that mean other people feel their emotions stronger than their words state.

September 29, 1997
Don't look at the person you see coming through, think of the soul that is looking out.

These quotes are in stark contrast to the "me" in the early formal operational period who thought of her classmates as expendible (e.g. the 14-year-old who concluded on the first day of school that N is such a priss. L is annoying, too!) I really began to take control of my life and set goals for myself. I began to explore even bigger concepts and began to reflect on why I do the things I do. I even wrote an article that explores why I explore my thoughts in my journals!

November 8, 1997
You are the author of your own Life Story!!

November 17, 1997
Someday, I want to do something so great, that it will be great and change something for better. It will be great.

November 26, 1997
I'm not sure what kind of attitude to have in situations. Should I simply try to avoid being negative, and strive for being neutral, or avoid being neutral and always be positive? I think that if I discover the things I value, then those are the things I will foster in others.

December 23, 1997
I think it would be purposeless to describe myself in this book since it wouldn't help me much right now - it focuses too much on yesterday. I do acknowledge the fact that the past needs to be addressed in order to change or redirect my future. But then again, perhaps what I think should be writing about really isn't necessary and all I really need is a chance to explore my thoughts and (what's the word?) Externalize them?

It is self-evident that I had come a long way in those four years. Compare the grade nine girl who, on the first day of school, talks about the attractiveness of boys to the grade twelve girl who contemplates spirituality:

September 2, 1994 - First day of Grade 9
Remember, there's a difference between cute and hot. "Cute" is like "little boy; friend only, kinda cute", but "hot" is like "WOAH baby! Knock out!" Kay? Get it?

December 23, 1997
I noticed that spirituality doesn't have to coincide with religion, and I don't want to mold myself into some other spirituality. Why should I copy some others spirituality anyways? I'm not being stubborn, but I do have this instinct and I can find my way around without a map. That's my style.

Generally speaking, I learned that my identity crises and cognitive development were both quite normal from the grade nine adolescent who is a self-confessed boy addict to the grade twelve adolescent who takes charge of her self-explorations and emotional intelligence.

Kind of a disappointing journal exploration, I thought. I found out that I was completely normal!! (And kind of ironic considering that adolescents are so certain that they are special and unique) My initial exploration did not reveal many intriguing individual differences in what the text said and in what I reported at various stages of development. THEN IT HAPPENED.

Not that it is really a huge life event, but in terms of finding a research topic that REALLY fuels my system this was big! I was hunting through the text book, though I don't remember exactly what I was looking for, and I stumbled on page 250 of chapter 7 - "CHARACTERISTICS OF GIFTED ADOLESCENTS!" I was like an 11-year-old in the library who, upon discovering a book with nude photos, is completely shocked and unable to absorb the information quickly enough! You see, in the time frame that I attended elementary school and highschool, the Catholic School System was in a transitory period as far as the way they 'deal with' gifted children. If you check them out now, they have special "enriched" programs in various subject areas that students can participate in depending on what they are good at. These programs continue all through elementary school and, to a lesser extent, throughout the highschool years. Unfortunately, I was living a few years too early. When I was attending these schools, they had the "Gifted Program". Third grade teachers recommended a handful of kids to be tested to enter this program. You had to have an IQ over 130 to get in. After the testing, a few students from each elementary school were selected (3 from mine), and they were taxied to St. Matthew Elementary School once a month to work with various teachers. This program went from grade four until grade eight. In highschool, you were on your own without any special enrichment.

The point of all this is not to complain because I loved that program dearly and had so much more fun than I ever did in my regular classes. There are two implications in all of this.

First off, children don't realize that they are "different" from everyone else, or "gifted" in any way, until the adults identify them and let them know it (i.e. by testing them and sticking them in a special program). Up until that point, the child knows nothing else. Sure, school seems super easy and very boring. Sure, it doesn't make sense why everyone else isn't catching on. But a child doesn't question it. In fact, I don't think I ever did seriously question any of it until I began teaching piano lessons when I was 15. I couldn't understand why it was difficult, nor could I understand why my students were having so much trouble playing "simple" pieces. Even then, I didn't fully understand what was going on. The older I got, I realized that I indeed had a bit of an 'advantage', but I didn't attribute it to being "gifted". As I developed cognitively and was able to identify that I indeed was a bit different from my peers and could think about myself in these terms, I attributed any advantage I had to the fact that I am creative.

When I was 16, I read a book called Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly that gave me a cognitive framework for my personal identity. I used two quotes from his book to define myself in terms of being a creative person. Although they are a bit long, I include them because they beautifully illustrate the principles in his book! He completed an enormous research project that investigated creative adults in many fields and many subjects. When he was finished, he wrote his book Creativity. (Unfortunately, when I copied them back when I was 16, I had no concerns for referencing and had no idea I would ever be using this information in a psychology class. Thus, I have no page references, but I do declare that they are direct quotes).

"Are there then no traits that distinguish creative people? If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it would be complexity. By this I mean that they show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes - instead of being an "individual" each of them is a "multitude". Like the colour white that includes all the hues in the spectrum, they tend to bring together the entire range of human possibilities within themselves."~Csikszentmihaly

"These qualities are present in all of us, but usually we are trained to develop only one pole of the dialectic. We might grow up cultivating the aggressive, competitive side of our nature, and disdain or repress the nurturant, cooperative side. A creative individual is more likely to be both aggressive and cooperative, either at the same time or at different times, depending on the situation. Having a complex personality means being able to express the full range of traits that are potentially present in the human repertoire but usually atrophy because we think that one or the other pole is "good" whereas the other extreme is "bad"." ~Csikszentmihaly

Back to my original point. Children don't know that they can be categorized as "gifted" until they are treated differently. And secondly, when we got to highschool, all of this "gifted" business was completely forgotten. In fact, I don't recall ever hearing about giftedness in any classes from any teachers (and I'm confident that I would have paid much attention to this topic because it fascinates me). The very fact that giftedness is a relatively permanent trait did not even occur to me until I read about it a few weeks ago in my adolescent psychology textbook! It is almost like I forgot that I am gifted (or, as I say, that 'people say I am gifted')! Following this, I didn't ever consider the question of differences in a gifted adolescent's development! This discovery stimulated many new questions for me! How is a gifted adolescent different from other adolescents? What cognitive developmental differences exist? What emotional developmental differences exist? And, of course, are there any differences at all? This gave me a new context for observing my developmental changes.

Of the research done on gifted adolescents (which is quite sparse compared to research on gifted children), most of it is descriptive. It examines characteristics of gifted persons and speculates on related concepts such as their epistemological beliefs about learning and achievement. The research does not attempt to answer my questions about developmental differences, but it does describe the characteristics of gifted adolescents very thoroughly. The text lists three main characteristics: precocity, marching to their own drummer, and a passion to master complimented by a high degree of internal motivation. Grant (1995) explores the following characteristics:

  • able to develop personal goals
  • approach texts and tasks personally
  • passionate about their education
  • live more intellectual, emotional, sensual, and imaginational lives
  • have richly complex and intense emotional lives

I see little point in elaborating too much on how I "fit" into these categories, as this is not an assignment to prove to you that I was a gifted adolescent. I seek rather to discuss what I really gained from doing this assignment. I gained a better sense of how my development was "normal" per se, as well as how I differ from what researchers would call my "non-gifted peers". As most gifted persons do, I have a passion. As I described in one of my later journals:

January 18, 1999
I love love, and I love life! Each day I want to learn more about people and myself! I seem to be in the business of learning the reality of life, learning the best possible reality of life. Learning to raise consciousness and spreading it everywhere! I seem to be in the business of teaching people how to learn about themselves, their unique purpose, helping people understand why things happen to them and supporting them as they grow. Personal, spiritual, psychological growth.

In my mind, the most notable section in the gifted adolescent research is in an article I read in the Roeper Review titled "The Place of Achievement in the Life of the Spirit and the Education of Gifted Students." It discusses how teachers and parents continually emphasize and praise grades and academic achievements while the students who achieve this actually place less emphasis on academic achievements and more on personal achievements. As I once wrote when I was sixteen:

January 8, 1997
...the marks are just a bonus. The most important part is finding it in yourself and not letting others pull you down. It's something I can be proud of doing! I found it inside.

Interestingly, this article eloquently summarizes much of my academic life in highschool. It also applies to my approach to all creative assignments, including this one:

"Academic achievement is not an end, or even a means, but a consequence of pursuing certain goals and enacting certain motivations. Love of learning, curiosity about the natural world, the pursuit of a vocation; the desire to create, improve the world, develop oneself, devise a philosophy of life, acquire virtue, and find truth. These are motivations and goals of the gifted. Academic achievement may or may not accompany them." (p. 132)

Books and Stuff

  • class notes

  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (1996). Creativity : flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

  • Myself (name removed by request). My journals!

  • Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Basic Books.

  • Grant, B. (1995). The Place of Achievement in the Life of the Spirit and the Place of the Education of Gifted Students. Roeper Review, 18(2), 132.

  • Schommer, M. (1997). Epistemological Beliefs of Gifted High School Students. Roeper Review, 21, 153.

  • text notes