As a child, I was an orchid but lived like a dandelion. I have always prided myself on my resiliency for surviving a long and painful childhood filled with abandonment, psychological, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Child abuse can do that to you—give you a false sense of self and what resiliency really looks like.
Resiliency is not just surviving. This false narrative of resiliency can take years to undo. One approach is to try to uncover what your natural tendencies may have been outside the context of abuse. I have come to understand that like the orchid, I thrive in routines, structure, and consistency and wither in chaos, fallacies, and stress.
Each relationship I am in—whether it is with a romantic partner, a family member, a friend, a colleague, a neighbor, and even strangers—brings me more clarity on how important it is that I articulate my sensitivities—my orchidness—so that I may accept love, feel accepted, and believe I am safe. Love, acceptance, and safety are three things child abuse survivors like me think we want, but often feel we don’t deserve. Where does that feeling come from? How does it persist no matter what I accomplish, achieve, or create?
Research on children’s resiliency by Dr. Thomas Boyce, an emeritus professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of California, has helped me understand the difference between people who seem unfazed by their surroundings and those who are highly sensitive to their environments. He calls these two types of children: dandelions and orchids.
Dandelions are children who are resilient and learn to cope with stress in most circumstances. Orchid children are sensitive to adverse environments and are susceptible to feeling stress in good environments as well. Orchids need extra care because they can have an intense biological response to good or bad stress.
Dr. Boyce figured this out by trying to understand how children respond biologically when faced with mild stressors and challenges. He then measured children’s stress response using the two primary stress response systems in the human brain. The first measurement was the cortisol system, which is the system that releases the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol impacts your immune system and how your heart works. The second measurement was the autonomic nervous system, or your "fight-or-flight" reaction. Boyce found that some children were highly reactive to mild stressors and challenges while other children were not affected at all.
Boyce’s work completely resonates with me. I often wonder why I see the worst outcome for everyday events. For example, when I see a child in minor danger, my mind goes from observing the minor event to the worst-case scenario to their death, in a nanosecond. My body gets overheated, my mind races, and then I get completely self-conscious because I know I am overreacting. And even if I don’t share the thoughts or act on them, they still sting and sometimes languish for several hours. Sometimes they can even inform my dreams, causing blistering nightmares that swell and swell until they pop when I wake, leaving me exhausted the next day.
I wonder if child abuse survivors are able to reflect on and identify what type of child they were, an orchid or a dandelion, that it may help them better understand the impact of their trauma, and help them find their own path towards feelings of love, acceptance, and safety.
If you love an orchid, it may help to understand that when we are stressed we can become overwhelmed with fear, insecure, and feel unwanted when faced with disorganized, chaotic, inconsistent environments. We may feel helpless and alone, as our minds find ways to cope. We may hold ideas that are not true like:
- Don’t trust anyone; it’s not safe.
- Don’t ask for help; you will be seen as a burden.
- Don’t share how you feel; people are tired of hearing about your trauma.
As hurtful as these feelings are to hear for those who love orchids, these feelings often help orchids cope in the immediate situation—to survive. Self-limiting scripts are our armor, our sword to fend off deep feelings of despair. Even with the best love, the most supportive family, the kindness of friends and neighbors, orchids still may experience depression, panic attacks, anxiety, self-defeating behaviors, and suicidal thoughts.
Unhealed trauma in orchids is especially fierce on intimate relationships. It can cause everyday issues to become complex and hurtful for orchids. Orchids may overreact, withdraw, become unresponsive, doubt they are lovable or entitled to forgiveness, and dive deep into an existential crisis.
If you love an orchid who has survived child abuse, you need to care for yourself too as you find ways to help care for your orchid. I found some excellent communication tips by Robyn E. Brickel, MA, LMFT for partners of trauma survivors that include:
- Use self-observation to recognize when to slow down or step back as feelings escalate
- Practice mindfulness to raise awareness and recognize triggers for each of you
- Develop some phrases to help you stay grounded in the present and re-direct your dialogue, such as:
“I wonder if we can slow this down.
“It seems like we’re getting triggered. Can we figure out what’s going on with us?”
“I’m thinking this could be something we should talk about in therapy.”
“I wonder if we could try and stay grounded in what is going on for us—is that possible?”
A few communication practices can also help a partner comfort an orchid when they feel stressed:
- Reminding the person that they are safe.
- Calling attention to the here and now (referencing the present date, location, and other immediate sights and sounds).
- Offering a glass of water, which can help stop a flashback surprisingly well. (It activates the salivary glands, which in turn stimulates the behavior-regulating prefrontal cortex.)
Understanding that I was an orchid and not a dandelion as a child has shaped a new narrative of my childhood trauma and its effects on me as an adult. It has helped me let go of some coping strategies that did not promote healing. Knowing I was an orchid affirmed that I need to be more intentional with how I communicate my need for structure, consistency, and routine to further my quest for true interdependence in my home and community. To learn more about orchids and dandelions, read Dr. Boyce’s book.
Robyn E. Brickel, MA, LMFT LOVING A TRAUMA SURVIVOR: UNDERSTANDING CHILDHOOD TRAUMA’S IMPACT ON RELATIONSHIPS December 13, 2018/in Academic Struggles, Acting Out & Temper Tantrums, Depression + Anxiety.
The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive (Knopf, 2019).