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Sex and the Highly Gifted Adolescent

by Annette Revel Sheely

Many parents find it difficult to acknowledge their adolescent's emerging sexuality. Yet they are the very people who can be most influential in guiding their teen towards a positive adult sexuality. 

In any family, this emergence can be quite a challenge. For families with highly gifted adolescents, however, it can be especially confusing.

Some characteristics innate to the highly gifted can complicate an adolescent's developing sexuality. These include asynchrony (either early or late sexual development), social isolation, sensual overexcitability, and androgyny. 

There are few good resources for parents about sexual education and none specifically for parents of the highly gifted. This article addresses issues that families with highly gifted adolescents have faced, and offers suggestions to help parents guide their highly gifted adolescent toward a sexually healthy adulthood.

Asynchrony: Too Early or Too Late

Asynchronous, or out-of-sync, development so commonly seen in highly gifted children, wreaks havoc not only with educational needs, but also with the milestones of growth and maturity. Many parents of highly gifted children have reported that the physical changes of puberty and the emotional adjustments of adolescence began years earlier than expected for their children.

While parents of highly gifted teens may understand and support advanced cognitive development, they may be uncertain how to react when their child, either openly or covertly, begins to express sexual feelings. 

Setting appropriate limits for any teenager is difficult enough, but what rules and guidelines should parents set when a child is chronologically 16 years old, and has the cognitive reasoning of a 25 year-old adult? 

To many of these highly gifted teens, sexuality is yet another aspect of their developing self that just occurs early. The mother of 16 year-old girl recently shared with me, "When she was little, asynchrony was one thing. We had to battle with the schools to get the right level of books for her to read in school. 

But now it's about more serious things. She's dating men 10 years older than she is. I found out she's already been sexually active. I've always allowed her more freedom due to her maturity. But now, I don't know what to do."

A 15 year-old boy said this, "It's hard for my parents and I right now. They like how gifted I am when I get awards and stuff, but they want me to slow down with my girlfriend. They say I'm moving too fast. It's the same speed I've always moved at."

A highly gifted 24 year-old woman who is a lesbian tells this story: "When I was younger, I fell in love with a friend. It wasn't a crush or puppy love. It was incredibly deep. We didn't tell anyone; we knew no one would take us seriously because of our age. When my father's company transferred him to another state, I told my parents that I was in love and wanted to stay where we were. 

"I wanted to find some way to work this out. They insisted I go with them. I understand, because I was only 14 or 15 at the time, but, still, I felt like they should have respected my feelings as a person."

Parents' worry and confusion may not always be about very advanced development. Some highly gifted adolescents develop noticeably later than their peers. Puberty may occur as late as 16 or 17 years old. Teens who are late developers are often highly self-conscious and afraid that they will never develop normally. 

Parents can reassure them that each body changes on its own schedule. For highly gifted teens in particular, physical development can add anxiety to the ongoing stress of being so different from classmates. This issue becomes an all-consuming fear for the teen, consulting with a pediatrician can help rule out any medical problems.

Social Isolation: Holding Some Back and Pushing Others Forward

Sometimes the physical changes of puberty have occurred, but a teen seems hesitant to begin dating or trying new social experiences. The father of a 19-year-old college student shared this: "when I was his age, you couldn't keep me away from the girls. But not him--he sits in front of his computer all weekend and doesn't seem interested in even meeting real people, let alone dating." 

Perhaps this young man hasn't found a safe or appropriate peer group with whom to make this transition. while from the outside, it may look like he isn't interested in sex, it is more likely that he is in the midst of an introspective exploration of self and sexuality. 

Occasionally, teens are unsure of their sexuality and they may need to imagine, search out, and try a variety of experiences to know where their own personal boundaries are. If they don't feel that they can share this exploration with their family, they will be likely to hide it and make it appear that they aren't interested in sex at all.

A mathematics Ph.D. candidate shared that he was the classic "nerd" throughout middle school and high school. The girls he was attracted to ignored him. He felt very cut off from the dating scene of his classmates. His parents tried to encourage him to date, but he felt humiliated by their gestures. Their concern about his lack of dates made him even more self-conscious. 

He spent his weekends pursuing his hobbies of remote control airplanes and computer game programming. From the outside, it would appear that be had no interest in dating or sex. The reality, he says, was that sex was all he could think about in those years. He just had no outlet to explore or express it. For him it was more about geography than any real delay in his development. 

When he went to college and met girls who were interested in him, he felt that he was finally catching up, finally on track with his sense of himself.

Highly gifted high school students who felt socially isolated in elementary and middle school have talked about discovering sex as a new, intense way to finally connect with other people. A 20-year-old highly gifted young man said that when he went away to an early entrance college program at 15, he finally knew what it was really like to have true peers, and sex was one of the ways that the students all related to each other. 

A quiet and studious gifted young woman explained to me that through her open sexuality in high school, she attracted classmates who had previously ignored her. She described the experience as validating and empowering.

Sensual Overexcitability

Another dimension of sexual complexity for some highly gifted adolescents is an increased awareness of sensory experiences. Polish psychiatrist and psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski described five "Overexcitabilities" (OE) present in gifted people: Psychomotor, Sensual, Intellectual, Imaginational, and Emotional. 

Those who lead with a Sensual OE have a heightened capacity for sensory stimuli thought to result from increased neuronal sensitivities. The child who needed the label cut from his shirt so it wouldn't distract him all day, may as a teenager or young adult, experience sex with his lover as an ecstatic, almost spiritual union. 

One young man, a senior in an accelerated academic high school program, described his experience of sex as an incredible sensual exploration: "It takes me from the mundane, closed-in world of homework and rules, to this.. blissful place beyond words, beyond physical limitations." 

A young woman who graduated from college at 18 years old commented that in her experience, her highly gifted peers seemed to experience sex in a fuller, more multidimensional way than their age peers.


Yet another layer of sexual intricacy is added when looking at the highly gifted and gender roles. Androgynous teens combine feminine and masculine qualities in a distinctive blend, without emphasizing the traits typically associated with their gender. 

Highly gifted people tend towards a more androgynous style, and few of them act out gender role stereotypes. As children, gifted girls and gifted boys are more similar to each other than they each are to their non-gifted, same-gender counterparts. 

But in adolescence, when gender roles increase in social importance among age peers, androgynous highly gifted teens are often subjected to harassment in school. Some teens have described emotional struggles that they have endured because they don't fit neatly into the gender norms of our culture.

Guiding Your Highly Gifted Adolescent Toward Sexual Health

Sexual health has been described by an expert group to the World Health Organization as the integration of the somatic, emotional, intellectual, and social aspects of sexual well-being in ways that are positively enriching and that enhance personality, communication, and love.

Given the various complicating factors that the highly gifted face, and with all the media and Internet influences, how can parents help their adolescents have a healthy, positive attitude about sex and teach them to make responsible, appropriate choices for themselves? 

Don't wait until adolescence to teach them what you want them to know. In adolescence, it's practically their developmental job to reject whatever you have to say. As with all other topics, highly gifted children begin to learn about sexuality from birth on. Teach them your personal values when they're young-not just what you believe but why you believe it. What do you want to teach them about relationships, intimacy, gender roles, sexual orientation, masturbation, and privacy?

*  Infants and toddlers will learn about love and closeness from you when you hold them, respond to them, and care for them. They will learn about trust and communication from you. This may seem simple, but it lays an important foundation for future adult relationships.

*  Preschool children are full of questions. Be approachable. When they ask questions that are sexual in nature, reward them by answering in a respectful and honest way. Say things like, "I'm glad that you came to me with that." Now is the time to assure your children that your home is one where questions and concerns can be shared. If they learn this lesson now, they will be more likely to share critical issues with you in their adolescence.

*  Highly gifted elementary school age children want more complex information about things like reproduction, birth, and death. They've probably heard about HIV and other diseases. When they ask questions, listen carefully to determine what they really want to know. They may be seeking concrete examples or your point of view about more abstract concepts. 

As they get closer to middle school age, it's not too early to talk with them about pregnancy, disease, condoms, and birth control. Research has shown that giving young people honest information about sex does not promote early sexual activity.

*  When you notice puberty beginning, try very hard to keep the lines of communication open between you and your child. This will likely become more and more difficult, but it is important that he or she feels that it is still safe to bring questions and concerns to you. 

Better that you should have some helpful and loving input to a difficult situation than to hope that your child's peers or the media will give him or her good advice. If your daughter tells you about a crush on a classmate, don't devalue her experience. Ask about her feelings, find out what she values in the other child, help her feel safe in sharing with you.

*  Talking with adolescents about sex may be challenging for both the parent and the teen, but as long as they will listen to you, use this time to continue to share your values and give them clear messages about your beliefs and expectations.

If you have an expectation of abstinence, "Just say no" is not enough. Teach them the skills they will need, including decision making, effective communication, assertiveness, and negotiation. If you know that your teen is sexually active, talk to him or her about sexual behaviors that will not risk a teen pregnancy or HIV transmission.

*  If you are unsure about their sexual activity or their sexual orientation, don't push them to tell you. Don't probe deeper than they are comfortably willing to share. If you demand answers that they are not ready to be honest about with you, they will be forced to lie. This will set an uncomfortable precedent.

*  Use what you see on television and in the movies as a chance to talk about sex and what you feel is healthy or unhealthy sexual behavior. Abusive relationships, unsafe sex, teen pregnancy -- instead of seeing these as negative influences on your child, see them as an opportunity to share with your child how he or she can prevent those kinds of experiences.

*  Experimentation with sexual behaviors, roles, and different peer groups are a natural part of this phase of life. Do set boundaries as necessary for safety, but do also allow for a healthy amount of exploration of self and environment.

*  Consider creating a memorable and respectful ritual that acknowledges the arrival of puberty, and the beginning of sexual maturation. Many adults in our culture received negative feedback from their parents about sexuality or gender roles upon the beginning of puberty, which can lead to an ambiguous feeling of embarrassment and discomfort. 

Instead this could be an opportunity to create a shared, positive memory of moving into a new role, full of rich experiences and important responsibilities.

*  If you don't feel that you have enough information to share what you think your teen should know, be open to seeking further information.

The Role of the Internet

Many highly gifted teens don't have deep friends that they feel close to, with whom they can share their personal concerns about their changing body or their budding romantic interests. With current technology, these teens may find a handful of friends over the Internet, scattered across the country. 

While other teens are out on a Friday night, trying on their dating skills, these young people are socializing in their own way, flirting in a private Chat Room. Shy teens or teens with few social skills can learn a great deal about human interaction and communication by talking with others online. 

Many people find that the relative anonymity of online communication allows them to try on a bolder persona. This can create positive change: what they learn online can actually help them improve their face-to-face interactions with people. 

But it can also become a crutch or even an addiction for the few who don't have any other social connections.

Today's parents must also realize that the Internet can influence young people's sexuality in a way that previous generations never experienced. Having an email address is all a person needs to be sent emails with links to sexually explicit websites. 

While most adult websites require verification of age, many do offer free samples of graphic, hardcore sex, Also, there is a strong presence on the Internet of websites that feature paraphilias such as fetishism, sadism, and bestiality. 

While few people favor censorship, most will agree that pornography is not intended for children and young teens. In some cases, exposure at a vulnerable age can have a lifelong negative influence on the person's sexual makeup. For parents who are concerned about the images that their children may be exposed to, filtering software is available for purchase and Internet parental controls are available for free to the users of most popular online services.

Internet Softly:
America Online, Prodigy, and Compuserve have "Parental Controls" available for their users. Software controls available:
CyberPatrol from WWWeb City, Inc.
Parental Guidance from Providence Systems, Inc.
SurfWatch from SurfWatch Software, Inc.
CyberSitter from Solid Oak Software, Inc.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Interactive Services Association has published a guide for parents: "Child Safety on the Information Highway"

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Sexual Education lnformation:
SIECUS - the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States

Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)

For help advocating for safety and respect in schools for gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual students: Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN)


Published in Highly Gifted Children, Volume XIII Number 2, Winter & Spring 2000.

Republished with kind permission of the author.


Annette Revel Sheely evaluates and counsels learners at the Gifted Development Center, Denver, Colorado. She sponsored the Mensa group for teens in Denver, and often leads discussion groups for highly and profoundly gifted children.

see listing on the page: <counselors>

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  related Talent Development Resources pages :

GT Adults blog gifted/talented/high ability

Highly Sensitive People

gifted / talented news & resources

giftedness : articles

giftedness : books

HSP & gifted books

intensity / sensitivity

intensity / sensitivity resources : articles sites books

introversion / shyness.

introversion resources : articles  sites  books


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