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How to Raise an Orchid

Toward a greater understanding of highly sensitive children.

Highly Sensitive Child
Source: SergeMelkovart/Shutterstock

Dandelions thrive in almost any environment. Orchids are delicate, requiring substantial maintenance to bloom.

Children are similar. Many are resilient in the face of considerable environmental challenges. These "dandelions" navigate through difficulties and recover easily.

"Orchid" children are not as fortunate. Without specialized cultivation, they can deteriorate and have lifelong struggles. Orchid children need responsive environments due to their highly sensitive natures, but how do you identify an orchid child?

Behavioral Characteristics

Behaviorally, orchid children have temperamental traits that indicate high emotional reactivity. These are the kids with big emotions! Their reactivity can be positive or negative. Do you have a child that appears to overreact to seemingly small setbacks? Or, perhaps, does your child show immense joy at rather mundane life-occurrences? Are small injustices met with extreme distress?

Within the psychological literature, this emotional reactivity is often referred to as neuroticism. Neuroticism is one of the Big Five Personality Traits. Neuroticism has proven to be a stable characteristic over time and across cultures, and research suggests that there is a strong positive correlation between high levels of neuroticism and scores on measures of high sensitivity to environmental stress.

Biology and Genetics

At the biological level, orchid children show an increased stress response. Dr. Thomas Boyce created a stress reactivity protocol and tested children’s biological stress responses by evaluating changes in cortisol levels and reactions from individual’s autonomic nervous (fight or flight) systems.

Boyce found that 15 to 20 percent of children had very elevated responses to stressful events, while others had little to no reaction. These highly reactive orchids have measurably higher physiological responses to environmental occurrences that barely register for non-orchids.

Research from the field of behavioral genetics informs us that having certain polygenic variance contributes to the likelihood of having a host of behavioral struggles. For example, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—a condition characterized by hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention—has been shown to have high heritability through twin and adoption studies. Recent research is showing that much of ADHD’s heritability may be because of the polygenic effects of many common deviations, each having slight effects.

How Do You Parent an Orchid?

If you have an orchid child, the environment becomes much more significant. The gene-environment interaction is crucial to understanding why some orchid children thrive and others do not. So, how can we provide appropriate environments for our orchid children?

There are no universal parenting truths, and some children are more challenging than others. I cringe when I see parent-blaming memes on social media sites, laughing at "helicopter parents" who worry about their child’s every move. It is far easier to be self-righteous about parenting if you have dandelion children. However, many "helicopter parents" know their children and realize they need additional supports to overcome their extreme emotional reactivity.

With orchid children, parents must respect the child’s hypersensitivities while encouraging growth. This delicate balance is challenging. Dr. Boyce eloquently describes this struggle:

“The parent of an orchid child needs to walk this very fine line between, on the one hand, not pushing them into circumstances that are really going to overwhelm them and make them greatly fearful, but, on the other hand, not protecting them so much that they don't have experiences of mastery of these kinds of fearful situations."

He further elucidates that we should not try to change these children. We need to accept their sensitivities while encouraging growth—but our goal should not be a transformation, but rather small steps toward better coping mechanisms.

Educating Orchids

Determining the best educational environment for your orchid child can be an exceptional challenge. Orchids may not thrive in typical educational environments due to their heightened sensitivities to the world.

High emotional reactivity can be very difficult in large classroom settings. Despite their best efforts, typical schools with large classrooms may struggle to accommodate orchids. These children may be singled out as having possible psychological disorders, and are sometimes affixed with labels that don’t really fit.

As a parent of an orchid, this was the path I saw before we pulled our kindergarten son out of public school to be homeschooled. Our son’s teacher and administrators began to suggest that he need to be evaluated for a disorder. As a parent and a psychologist, however, I knew this was not the case. Our son’s behavior was not consistent with any particular diagnosis and, further, was highly dependent on his environment.

In a previous blog post, I discussed the psychology of school choice. Individual differences combine with the environment to make differing educational options a necessity for our differing natures and preferences. Many options exist, from regular public schools to "unschooling." Parents should take great care to consider what educational environment will be the best fit for their orchid child.

Tulip Children

While most of the literature in this area presents a dichotomy between dandelion and orchid children, recent research conducted by Lionetti et al., provides empirical evidence for a third category of sensitivity. They describe these mid-range individuals as "tulips."

Tulip children fall somewhere in between the demanding orchids and the resilient dandelions. Just like the flowers, tulip children require a bit more environmental support than dandelions, but much less than orchids.

Final Thoughts and Implications

Parent your children as they are and don’t try to change their underlying temperamental characteristics. As Dr. Boyce suggests, however, determining that “delicate balance” of acceptance of who they are and gentle guidance toward mastery of difficult situations should always be kept in mind.

Personally, our orchid child has unimaginable reactions to relatively sad portions of movies. This has caused serious movie theater stress! Knowing he is a highly sensitive orchid helps us to react more appropriately to his emotional outbursts. More love and comfort—and less frustration—have made a profound difference in our family dynamics.

While beyond the scope of this article and a very controversial topic, genetic risk scores may eventually provide a way for parents to definitively identify orchid children. This early identification could allow for increased targeted behavioral interventions to help parents create more appropriate environments for their highly sensitive children.

Finally, while having an orchid child may seem overwhelming, it is important to realize that with the right cultivation, our orchids won’t just grow; they will blossom and become unimaginably beautiful flowers.

More from Jessica Koehler Ph.D.
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