“Every child is a different kind of flower and altogether make this world a beautiful garden.” Anonymous
Dandelions can grow just about anywhere. They jut up through sidewalk cracks. They thrive just fine in wild forests and well-tended gardens. Just like this hardy little flower, dandelion children are resilient. They can grow nearly anywhere. They are better equipped to cope with stress.
In contrast, orchid children are sensitive, like the delicate flower. Orchids and dandelions - these terms describe a surprisingly new concept in child development and genetics. Human development specialists Bruce J. Ellis of the University of Arizona and W. Thomas Boyce of the University of California, Berkeley wrote a paper in 2005 entitled Biological Sensitivity to Context which appeared in the journal Development and Pyschopathology. In this paper, they borrowed a Swedish term, orkidbarne, which means orchid child, and describe children who are genetically sensitive.
Unlike their counterparts, maskrosbarne, or the dandelion child, who are more psychologically resilient, orchid children are heavily affected by their home environments and the parenting they receive. In a bad or negative environment, orchid children quickly wither, but in a positive environment, they not only survive but, as the authors put it, they grow into “a flower of unusual delicacy and beauty.”
Dr. Boyce discussed this in his book, “The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive.” He has spent four decades studying the human stress response, including children, and he equates them to these two types of flowers. He observed two primary stress response systems in children in his lab. One measured the stress hormone cortisol. The other stress response system was the autonomic nervous system or the fight-or-flight system.
In one experiment, lab assistants asked children to undergo a series of mildly challenging tasks. Boyce said, “We found that there were huge differences among children. There were some children at the high end of the spectrum who had dramatic reactivity in both the cortisol system and the fight-or-flight system, and there were other children who had almost no biological response to the challenges that we presented to them.”
This shows that children are not equally susceptible to the psychological and physiological effects of adversity. Rather, they fall into two broad categories of susceptibility: a substantial majority that, like dandelions, thrive in both supportive and stressful environments; and a small minority that, like orchids, are especially sensitive to both good and bad conditions.
Unfortunately, this puts sensitive orchid children at risk for physical and psychological health problems. He goes on to say, “We find in our research that the same kinds of patterns of response are found for both physical illnesses, like severe respiratory disease, pneumonia, asthma, and so on, as well as in emotional behavioral outcomes, like anxiety and depression. So we believe that the same patterns of susceptibility that we find in the orchid child versus the dandelion child work themselves out not only for physical ailments but also for psychosocial and emotional problems.”
Because both the cortisol stress response and the fight-or-flight system may impact a child’s ability to fight viruses and bacteria, he added that these “could, eventually, in adult life, predispose to developing hypertension, high blood pressure, or other kinds of cardiovascular risk.
The question becomes, then, how do we protect our orchid children and create an environment in which they can “grow into a flower of unusual and delicate beauty?”
Tips for Growing Orchids
If you’ve been graced with an orchid child, here are three tips for helping them grow into their magnificence.
Allow your child to be her true self, and delight in who she is
Alice Miller, psychoanalyst and author of The Drama of the Gifted Child noted that many of her patients with serious mental disorders had a childhood in which they were not allowed to fully and authentically be themselves. She said that, in an effort to please their parents, they lost their sense of self, and these children moved into adulthood with a “trailing emotional emptiness.”
We can avoid making our children feel like they have to stuff away parts of themselves by offering unconditional and unquestionable love. Humanist psychologist Carl Rogers believed that unconditional positive regard contributed to feelings of self-worth and psychological well-being.
According to Rogers, unconditional positive regard involves showing complete support and acceptance of a person no matter what that person says or does. It means being able to drop all pretenses and still be valued. It’s knowing you're accepted in spite of your flaws and failures. Note here that unconditional positive regard does not equate to permissiveness or an endorsement of all behaviors. Rogers himself believed that, while all emotions are okay, all behaviors are not. Orchid children simply need to be lovingly guided on behavior without ever questioning if they’ve lost their parents’ esteem.
There are lots of ways we can offer our unconditional love and show our children that we accept them for who they are, fully and wholeheartedly. Spending quality time, listening to them without judgment, respecting their opinions, speaking positive affirmations, and validating emotions are just a few of them.
Create rituals, routines, and traditions
Sensitive children crave routine and predictability. It helps them feel safe and secure. In addition, family traditions and routines create a sense of belonging. They give us a shared identity. They strengthen our bond as a family unit. They create structure, stability, a sense of familiarity, and safety - all things that are important for children, particularly sensitive orchid children.
There is some suggestion that family traditions promote better emotional adjustment. Dr. Steven Wolin, a psychiatrist at George Washington University, says, “If you grow up in a family with strong rituals, you're more likely to be resilient as an adult.” In addition, there are more than 50 years of research supporting the efficacy of family routines in encouraging a sense of stability in children and fostering good mental health. While this is important for all children, the structure and predictability are especially beneficial to orchid children.
Celebrate their differences
Dr. Boyce says, “All kids, but especially orchid kids, do better in families where the differences between children are celebrated not hidden, recognized not masked.” Celebrate the uniqueness of each child by noticing what lights them up, what makes them feel alive and passionate, and where their strengths lie.
Orchid children are like canaries and the world is our coal mine. They can tell us when the conditions are all wrong and when there is danger and injustice. These children warn us that the world is too harsh while simultaneously softening it with their presence.
They are the candles lighting the darkness. Sensitivity is a kind of superpower. To sensitive children, it may feel, at times, more like a curse than a blessing, so it’s important that we help our sensitive children see their sensitivity as strength, rather than weakness. Honor and appreciate their sensitivities so that they may learn to do the same.
Raising orchid children does present its unique challenges, but these children are beautiful gifts to the world. The extra love and care you provide to grow your orchid will be paid back to you in double as you watch them bloom.