It strikes me, after being a parent for eight years, that at least one of my kids’ needs are different enough to warrant exploration. This child is brilliant, kind, and tender-hearted, but complete collapse occurs when exposed to big groups, the seams of socks, or noise. Disciplining, even the gentle type we try to employ, is a game of finding exactly the right words so my super sensitive child won’t spiral into a world of self-loathing when corrected.

I worry about the present. I worry about this child’s future. There is nothing wrong with my kid, but I feel out of my league in trying to give this one exactly what is needed to keep growth and happiness on course.

It may be because I’m raising an orchid.

 

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Orchids versus dandelions

We’ve all seen dandelions. The resilient flower can grow in the cracks in concrete and thrive in almost any climate. Now apply those traits to a child. There are dandelion kids that can persevere through small and large challenges, including poverty, neglect, and abuse. These children bounce back, keep growing, and aren’t thrown off course by most situations.

The opposite is an orchid child, a term that hit the scene in the early 21st century when researchers found that around a fifth of kids in the study struggled with situations the majority them didn’t. These orchid children tend to be introverts. They thrive on routine and are especially sensitive to their environment. Picky eating and noise sensitivity can be signs of an orchid, as can having a hard time with change or transitions, either large or small.

In the beginning of my orchid child’s life, this wasn’t a big deal. Infants and toddlers are often clingy, and new situations and big crowds throw them out of the comfort zone they enjoy. As time marches on and we enter the school-age years, this overly sensitive reaction to all things wears me down, and I am sure my child feels misunderstood. I need an answer to the questions what does my orchid child need, and how do I provide it?

What creates an orchid?

Why some children fall into the dandelion category while others are orchids is not 100 percent clear, but researchers believe genetics play a part. Orchid children seem to have genes in common that place them firmly in the fragile category.   

While researchers continue to look into glucocorticoid receptor gene NR3C1, a gene that Duke University called a genetic marker in orchid children, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University are also exploring gene CHRM2 – associated with alcohol dependency, it is also considered a possible orchid child gene, and this makes sense.  

Researchers know that orchid children are at higher risk for depression, alcohol dependency, and a cortisol stress response that may contribute to their overly startled reaction to small incidents. They also sometimes suffer from behavioral issues. Other genes are also under investigation when looking into orchid children, but all look to have something to do with behavioral issues, stress, and addictions.

My research wasn’t yielding encouraging news in the beginning since depression, anxiety, and drugs kept coming up in all the research about orchid children as adults. I clung to the only silver lining I could find which was that I didn’t intentionally give my kid these genes, so no mom guilt on that one.  

I know that like a seed can’t decide what kind of flower it’s going to be, children don’t choose their genes. From birth some children may be wired to the hypersensitive habits of an orchid. Fortunately or unfortunately, just like an orchid is hyper-sensitive to its environment, so are orchid children. In fact, researchers found that how much they are affected is  astounding.  

Environment changes everything

Parents of orchid children don’t want to change their children. Highly sensitive children bring their own perspective to situations, often exhibiting extremely honed observation skills and tenderness and empathy to spare. The fear with orchid children arises when we look at all the possible bad outcomes related to their genetic disposition. No one wants their child to grow up to be a manic depressive alcoholic because of an increased sensitivity level and some genes.  

It can be frustrating explaining every transition in detail multiple times, even if we’ve done it before. Knowing that one wrong word will set my orchid child off on a tirade of self-hate is shattering.  

A recent article in The Atlantic offers some reason for hope. According to the researchers and contributors I should be concerned but also empowered. Children who grow up in a supportive environment that offers what they need don’t wither, in fact, they often thrive. David Dobbs, author of the article, went as far as to conclude that with a good environment and solid parents, orchid kids “can grow up to be society’s most creative, successful, and happy people.”

A benefit to all that sensitivity is that orchid children are prepared for, and receptive to, help. A recent years-long study developed at Duke University showed that dandelion children, the resilient breed, are not affected by intervention programs, for better or worse. They generally manage through their circumstances and aren’t pulled too far down by bad environments or too far up by programs meant to help.  

Orchid children are. This means that despite the fact that they are in a tough spot in a world full of dandelions, they are susceptible to environments of support and will grow quite well when exposed to them.

What does my orchid need?

Orchid children’s needs are much the same as any child’s. Empathy, kindness, and an understanding of their struggles is key. Dr. Thomas Boyce, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of California, spoke to Susan Cain for her “Quiet” podcast titled “Parenting the Highly Sensitive Child”. He stresses knowing which battles to pick and which to let go.   

Physical stressors, such as fabrics that itch or noises that are too loud, will set off an orchid. It’s not a show they are putting on or something they have much control over. Brain scans show they are wired to respond dramatically to certain factors, so don’t fight with them about the physical ones. This is why my orchid doesn’t wear socks, even if it’s cold outside. The seam of the sock is an issue, and it’s not worth the fight.  Sandals are our go-to.  

Former orchid child and now scientific director of the Imagine Institute, Scott Barry Kaufman, also spoke during that podcast. He says overprotecting orchids is a mistake. Yes, they need to be shielded from obviously over stressful situations, such as being thrown into a group of 100 other kids with no preparation or assistance while being forced to wear itchy pants and eat sour food. However, they need to grow up knowing their parents are confident in their abilities to survive, despite how fragile they are.

Parents do best to pick experiences that are reasonable and discuss what is going to happen. They can then send their orchid child off with the assurance that his parents know he’s going to be fine. A supportive environment is not an overly protective one but one that tries to understand the challenges an orchid child faces and help them learn to navigate the world.

Obviously, predictable routines suit orchids well, as does a gentle form of punishment. Research shows that yelling and spanking damage children as opposed to actually changing their behavior, and for orchid children these aggressive approaches likely won’t be tolerated well.

The beauty of the orchid

Dandelion and orchid children are different, but one is not superior to the other. Though there are very specific challenges that come with raising an orchid child, orchid children possess remarkable skills that, in the right environment, benefit them.

The overly responsive reaction to stress that is deep within their genes makes them highly responsive to social and emotional cues when they are in a nurturing environment where they receive support. The behavioral issues, when dealt with in a disciplined yet gentle way, can be tamed to help these children make beneficial decisions about risks that might be worth the reward.

Orchid children are more prone to illnesses, many of them respiratory, and being raised in a family where stress is the norm causes them to fall ill more often. However, in an environment that is the right fit, orchids will experience less illness than dandelions, the children who have lower reactions to either positive or negative environments.

Knowing the news is not all bad, simply detailed, helps me on this journey forward. We can offer a supportive environment, let the small things go, and work on behavior management calmly. Knowing how essential this is to all my children, but especially my orchid, makes it even more of a priority than it was before.  

Orchid children have the most to lose, a genetic predisposition they can’t control. They also have the most to gain. Just like with any flower, it depends on where they’re planted.