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Burning Out Syndrome

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D


Q: What is the disorder where a child or teen is highly intelligent and capable of doing their work, but in school or life they have not been challenged enough mentally so they decide to just quit, and lower down to their peer's level? And most likely fall behind then. Up to the 6th grade, I was the highest in my class, I had skipped 2nd grade, and was always in honor roll.

Then come 6th grade, everything was so easy for me so I decided to just kind of give up, and try to fit in with all the other kids because I thought being intelligent was a terrible thing. I wasn't challenged enough, so I basically just pretended to be dumb. Now I am a senior in high school, and I swear ever since then I have actually TURNED a lot stupider, and my vocabulary is at least 3/4 less than what it used to be. I know that there is a name for children like this, do you know what I am trying to think of?

Thank you so much!

A: There is very limited information that is given so I am assuming that you are indeed gifted. It is called “burn-out” and it is not a disorder but a condition that happens when mentally unchallenged in the world of giftedness. Why would you think being intelligent is a terrible thing? Were you treated differently? Did something happen to make you feel that way? Did you seek any help then or did anyone try to help you when you started under performing from what you usually achieved?

Think about the root of the problem which may be more than merely not being challenged enough. And, if you are gifted, you may have just burnt out - and giftedness is lying dormant somewhere within you waiting to manifest as it did. And as long as there is no trigger, it will remain but will never go. So, you have not turned “stupider” (what an awful word to use for yourself!) in any way.

You can still gain momentum if you feel motivated to. It has to come from the inside and I believe you can since you made the effort to look it up and wrote this letter. Whether you have been gifted or not, anyone can burn out with the constant pressure to succeed and especially so for gifted children when they feel unchallenged and are working well only because they have to (parental, school pressure) and not because they enjoy learning. And for some children, it is never good enough; no matter how well the child does; there is always room for improvement. Some individuals get pushed so much that they lose focus and fall within the cracks of the system. Some just thrive - different people react differently.

An interesting therapy that may help burn out cases is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. This therapy replaces unrealistic beliefs with realistic beliefs and can be particularly helpful in your case. You may want to consult your school counsellor regarding this therapy. It may help you rethink your beliefs, to use new words to describe your experiences, and finally, to change your behaviour so that you have a better understanding of your performance at school.

I also believe that you need to have the drive to achieve to do well. Read a lot to improve your vocabulary. There is no short cut to hard work though. If you lack motivation, get some help from a counsellor or a coach. List your priorities and work towards achieving them. If you have done very well previously, you can do well now too. First and foremost, find the root of the problem and deal with it. Once you understand yourself better, it would be easier for you to focus on your present. I think, somewhere along the way, you have lost interest due to some reason that you may be aware or unaware of. But you are in high school, and there is time to reverse your scores - not without effort though.

An interesting set of life beliefs developed by Delisle (1990) specifically for gifted students may be of help: They are as follows:

Seven Realities for Successful Transition From Adolescence to Young Adulthood:

  • Reality # l: Remember that the real basics go beyond reading, writing and arithmetic.

  • Reality #2: You can be good at something you don't enjoy doing.

  • Reality #3: You can be good at some things that are unpopular among your friends.

  • Reality #4: Life is not a race to see who can get to the end the fastest.

  • Reality #5: You have the ability to ask questions which should have right answers, but don't.

  • Reality #6: It's never too late to be what you might have been.

  • Reality #7: A life's career is not a life sentence.

Another one, an interesting website you may want to read - though it may be better for your parents. Wishing you all the best!


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