5 signs your kid is highly intelligent, according to psychology

A year ago, a parent on Reddit shared that she and her husband discovered that their son—who was two years old at the time—had taught himself how to read. 

“My son has always been good at remembering so we figured that he just memorized the words,” she wrote on the community platform. 

She said they knew that their son was able to sight-read a lot of words, but they were surprised when, one day, he happened to read an unfamiliar word. 

“We asked him to read a word in our native language to be sure whether he could really read or not, and he read all of the words we asked him to.”

The mother says her son also started humming songs at just 13 months; he knew all the letters and numbers at 15 months, and learned how to count (“actual counting,” she says), by 18 months. 

“It took a 15-minute trip to the grocery store for him to learn about shapes, including complicated ones like hexagon, pentagon, octagon, and trapezoid.”

He was about 16 months at the time, she adds. 

Does any of this sound familiar with your own child? Do you suspect your child has an above-average intelligence level for their age?

Here are five signs your child is highly intelligent, psychologically speaking. 

1) You have a “hyperactive explorer” on your hands 

We know that all children are innately curious, but does your child’s curiosity seem to be in constant overdrive and—dare we say—drive you a little bit crazy?

You might just happen to have what in psychological circles is called a “hyperactive explorer,” says renowned child therapist (she’s also something of an Instagram sensation) Dr. Shefali Tsabary

“Hyperactive explorers can’t sit still and are never where you last left them,” Tsabary says. 

“These kids are often labeled ‘troublesome,’ by parents and teachers because they can be overwhelmingly active in their mind and body. But their superpower is that they are incredibly curious and engaged.”

Dr. Tsabary says that even though it can be exasperating parenting a hyperactive explorer, that these children need to be honored and not shamed for their passionate spirit. 

“Show them unconditional acceptance so they can accept themselves in a world that may repeatedly shun them,” she says. 

Say something like: “I admire you for your creativity and imagination. Your different way of thinking can help you do amazing things.”

2) Their brain seems to be a sponge—and then some 

While most children have a mind that absorbs anything and everything around them, highly intelligent children are able to retain complex information that is usually too complicated for their age. 

They also typically have an exceptional memory, says the team at TestingMom

“They remember details, sequences, and events with ease, and often surprise adults with their recollection skills. This ability aids their learning process, allowing them to make connections and associations more effectively.”

Not only do these children have exceptional cognitive abilities, they often exhibit high levels of creativity. 

“They enjoy problem-solving and are adept at thinking outside the box.”

Amazingly, these children are able to see patterns, make connections and discern abstract concepts that most children their age aren’t able to do as well. 

3) Their sense of humor will have you shaking your head in wonder  

A few years ago, when my niece was about six or seven years old, she was cutting up some bubble wrap from a package that I had received, with a pair of scissors. 

I asked her what she was doing. 

“Plastic surgery,” she replied nonchalantly with a shrug of her shoulders. 

I have to admit that I didn’t get it. 

She looked at my confused expression and patiently stated: “Bubble wrap? Scissors? Plastic surgery? Get it?”

Ohhhhhh I seeeee. 

I remember having a mixed reaction to the joke. How could she even know what surgery (let alone plastic surgery) was at her age? And that surgery required “scissors”? 

I also remember thinking that was pretty sophisticated humor for her age. I don’t know if she’s “gifted” per se, but holy cow. 

A sense of humor well beyond his or her years, and an advanced ability to manipulate and play with words are both characteristics of the verbally gifted child, says Celi Trépanier who wrote the book: Educating Your Gifted Child: How One Public School Teacher Embraced Homeschooling

“This is not an often talked about gifted characteristic most likely because when we think about intellectual giftedness we are more likely to concentrate on achievement and advanced academic skills,” says Trépanier. 

“Joke-creation is just not one of those skills we focus on while our gifted child is in school.”

But a child’s level of humor often points to how intelligent they are.

4) Their idea of “fun” is frequently different from their peers 

If you want your kids to be happy in life teach them these habits early on 1 5 signs your kid is highly intelligent, according to psychology

I remember reading somewhere on Quora once that one mom whose highly intelligent child had an insatiable love of reading would often go to the library with her son on weekends because that was his idea of fun. She would let him go to the Adult section and let him pick out whatever books she wanted. 

Many of the subjects the child chose—such as space exploration and engineering—the mother didn’t know much about.

Most highly intelligent children consider learning to be fun, says Ana G from Froddo, a childhood educational platform. 

“A [highly intelligent] child will often seek out opportunities to learn new information,” she says. 

Partly because they are always exercising their brain this way, their play will be especially imaginative, says the staff from Read and Spell

“They may have a wild imagination and develop their own sophisticated stories, songs, and plays. These examples of creative work can contain complex language and show an advanced appreciation for humor.”

Highly intelligent children also have an advanced vocabulary for their age and they actually prefer adult conversation. 

“Some [highly intelligent] children feel more at ease communicating with adults with their advanced language skills.”

The team at Read and Spell reminds parents that it’s still important to encourage a child to engage with his or her peers to prevent them from becoming isolated and withdrawing “due to perceived differences in intellectual ability.”

5) They have a profound sense of right and wrong  

The intensity and focus that highly intelligent children have for, say, math or reading, can also be found in their emotions, says licensed psychologist Kahina Louis

“Exceptionally bright children also tend to be unusually sensitive and empathetic,” she says. 

Their emotional depth and sensitivity gives them a heightened sense of justice, adds Megan Cannella, Manager of Family Services at Davidson Institute in Reno, Nevada. 

“[They] can experience frustration and disappointment when they feel like a situation is wrong,” she says. 

“Due to their asynchronous development, they may not yet have the emotional regulation skills to navigate those big feelings.”

I remember reading on Quora about a mother who said her highly intelligent toddler was profoundly disturbed at the idea of a nuclear war, for example. 

While high intelligence and “giftedness” includes a strong intellectual ability, “it is often also associated with a strong sense of right versus wrong, existential reflection, and a drive for truthfulness,” says Julie Skolnick from Chadd.org.

There are some downsides to your child’s high intelligence to keep in mind

We’ve touched on this, but children with exceptional intelligence for their age can suffer from social challenges. 

A child who is fascinated by war, curing disease, astronomy, and marine biology, for example, will often have difficulty relating to similarly-aged peers, says Skolnick. 

“[They] may become frustrated, impatient, or bored with ‘age-appropriate’ conversation and banter. 

An intense need or desire for perfectionism is another characteristic to be mindful of. 

“Gifted children are often told how smart they are from an early age. This type of praise can set perfectionists up to fail as they worry about letting others down.”

It’s no wonder, then, that children advanced for their age can become highly anxious

“Because these children are frequently misunderstood, challenged to control emotions and impulses, frustrated over executive functioning challenges, regularly chastised for behavior and need of movement, they fear their reprisal, their next failure, their next out-of-sync move,” says Skolnick. 

This is why it is imperative to provide a safe home and classroom atmosphere for these children and to encourage them to take risks. 

Says Skolnick: “A safe atmosphere includes understanding triggers, working through problems, and discussing ethical dilemmas.”

Support your highly intelligent child in the following ways

Experts say that it is important to offer emotional support to your child. Many of these children are also highly sensitive because they often have more intense feelings for their age. 

Give your child the opportunity to express their feelings, says Dr. Tali Shenfield

Remember to avoid comparisons, adds Dr. Shenfield. 

“Along with being sensitive, highly intelligent children tend to be very hard on themselves,” she says. 

“Comparing your child to other people (peers, siblings, or even yourself at their age), will worse their natural tendency to feel inadequate or too ‘different’.”

Dr. Shenfield says that likewise, favorable comparisons should also be avoided along with the negative ones. 

“Telling your child [that] they’re better than others will place them on a pedestal, therefore creating unrealistic expectations.”

She continues:

“As your child matures, teach them to value everyone as individuals, regardless of their relative level of intellectual ability.”

Picture of Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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