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The Orchid Child and Childhood Resilience

Parents often compare their children without even meaning to. It can be frustrating, for example, when their older child is great at math but their younger child fails to understand fractions.

Developmental and child psychologists know that every child is different, and it’s important to communicate that to parents who may not understand why one child struggles more with something while the other excels at it.

There are many reasons why children differ from each other, just as adults differ from each other, including genetics, environment, personality and other aspects.

Testing Emotional Sensitivity

One theory that expounds upon the differences between children focuses on their emotional sensitivity and how their environment affects their development.

According to the author of a recent study in Developmental Psychology, sensitive children feel more negative effects from a toxic environment and can experience more suffering because of it. The study focused on creating a 12-point scale, the Highly Sensitive Child scale, that measures the sensitivity levels of children aged 10 to 19. Current adult sensitivity tests are too long for children to take effectively, according to TODAY.

Some of the items on the scale, in which a response of “one” means “not at all” and “seven” means “extremely” – include statements like:

  • Loud noises cause me to feel uncomfortable.
  • I enjoy nice smells.
  • I do not like loud noises.
  • I feel annoyed when asked to do too many things.

The Orchid and Dandelion Theory

In 2005, the orchid and dandelion theory was introduced to show how genetics can affect children’s sensitivity as well as how their environment affects them later in life.

Authors of the theory borrowed Swedish terms for the concept: orkidebarn, which translates to “orchid child,” and maskrosbarn, which translates to “dandelion child.”

A dandelion child is resilient and can survive in any condition. They score low on sensitivity tests, while an orchid child scores high.

Orchid children are harder to maintain, just like an orchid – but if they are treated correctly and nurtured, they bloom and thrive. If orchids are neglected, they tend to wither as the plant would.

In the middle of dandelion and orchid children is the tulip child, someone who can handle most situations with resilience, but may exhibit some higher levels of sensitivity than a dandelion child.

The idea behind this theory, according to Scientific American, was that the highly reactive children could both wither and thrive, depending on their environments, giving scientists reason to pause and wonder if emotional sensitivity is somehow linked to genetics.

The Impact of CHRM2

CHRM2 is a gene that’s been linked to alcohol dependence in adults, and alcohol dependence is a behavior grouped with other disruptive behaviors such as childhood conduct disorders and antisocial behavior, according to Scientific American.

A research team took this into account and obtained DNA samples from around 400 boys and girls who were involved in a child development study to examine their CHRM2 gene variations. They asked the teens about misbehavior and how involved parents were in their lives to gain a comprehensive view of their parental nurturing.

The scientists found that certain CHRM2 variations seemed to “interact with parental negligence to produce the most undesirable teenage behavior.” However, the same variation, when paired with high parental involvement and nurturing, tended to show the best outcomes in the teenagers who were surveyed. The data from this study seemed to correlate with the orchid child model: the youth who were at high risk for exhibiting negative behavioral traits in less nurturing home environments were not as likely to have these issues when they lived in a positive home environment.

In other words, children who live in a rougher home environment and exhibit these orchid child traits seem to be at risk to have negative behaviors, while a dandelion or even a tulip child would be more likely to be resilient and bounce back from their negative home environment.

Examining the Highly Sensitive Child Scale

More research is still needed in these areas to determine the best course of action, according to The British Psychological Society (BPS). Parents, child development specialists, school counselors and other childcare professionals can work together to determine the sensitivity of a child and what each child requires to thrive and grow in his or her environment. By using the Highly Sensitive Child scale, adults can determine the sensitivity levels of a child.

Recent data seems to indicate that around 30% of children fall into the orchid category, while the rest are dandelions or tulips. The BPS points out that testing will need to be performed cross-culturally to see if there are variations there, what factors may influence other countries and what application are there.

For example, a current study on U.S. juvenile recidivism found that risk of reoffending strongly correlated with the quality of the youth’s home environment among those who had higher scores on the HSC test, according to the BPS.

According to the study, environmental sensitivity can be effectively measured by the HSC scale and is a trait that relates to other personality aspects. Recognizing and managing the tendencies of an orchid child can lead to them flourishing and doing well in life.

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