Some kids, like orchids, are highly sensitive to their environment. Provide oodles of love and routine, then watch them bloom
by Tom Boyce
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Reuters
is professor emeritus in paediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco and the author of The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive (2019).
Edited by Christian Jarrett
A bright, vivid seven-year-old, Will was a source of both deep parental pride and family havoc. He’d always been an infant of astonishing contrasts. As soon as he entered the world with his black, curly hair and lapis-blue eyes, he was keen to engage, and full of curiosity and intention. Never a particularly fussy baby, he slept through the night by the age of three months, was a good and vigorous breastfeeder, and offered little resistance to his parents’ adoring care. But by his first birthday, a new set of less-winsome attributes had begun to surface.
Will launched unwelcome foods back into his parents’ faces, sometimes cried inconsolably when left with someone unfamiliar, and was completely undone by changes in his daily routine. As he grew, he revealed an unsettled shyness, hiding behind his parents’ legs in the presence of new children, and an aversion to any form of novelty or change. He was often startled by loud noise, loathed certain tastes, and could not abide feeling his socks wrinkled inside his shoes.
Despite these challenges, Will thrived in many ways: he developed precociously, revealing a bright and imaginative mind, and grew into a sturdy, if tentative, little boy. But his temper and volatility defied his parents’ best efforts to contain them, and his dramatically ungoverned emotions challenged the patience of all who encountered him, even teachers and friends. In short, he was a charming but perilously uneven child.
In my book The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive (2019), I describe 40 years of research on children’s biological responses to stress and challenge, from which emerged a high-resolution picture of those like Will. He was what we came to call, metaphorically, an ‘orchid child’ – sentient, tender and highly affected by his social and physical circumstances. He flourished magnificently in supportive and predictable conditions, but devolved into behavioural and emotional disarray when challenged by newness or difficulty.
In our research, my colleagues and I found that orchid children comprised about one in five of the hundreds we tested in our lab, with the others – the ‘dandelion children’ in our shorthand – showing little biologic reactivity to stressors and few perturbations in health under a wide range of supportive and challenging conditions. For instance, the dandelion kids would show little change in their heart rate or skin temperature if we gave them some memory challenges to complete, whereas the orchid children’s hearts would begin racing at the first sign of being asked to perform.
Dandelion flowers are known for their hardiness and resilience – blossoming and growing anywhere their seeds happen to fall. Orchids, on the other hand, are tender and fragile – flowers of exquisite beauty when carefully tended, but languishing without the special care they require. So it is with orchid children and dandelion children. While the dandelion kids we identified in our lab remained strong and healthy irrespective of the adversities they often encountered, the orchid children exhibited the extremes of developmental outcomes. They prospered and thrived when reared in positive, encouraging families and schools, but they languished and sickened in environments of adversity and threat.
The good news for parents who are struggling to manage and nurture a highly sensitive, orchid-like child is that they thrive on all the love, time and attention they consume. Though needful of abundant love and care, they are sentient, imaginative kids, who – with sufficient support – often ascend into adulthoods of special creativity and accomplishment.
Given this crucial contrast in the development of highly sensitive, orchid-like children, your vigilance and skill as their parent will make a significant difference in their health and development and, ultimately, to the kind of lives they lead. Raising an orchid child is challenging, complicated, and always consequential, because the potency of parenting is proportional to the sensitivity and susceptibility of the children in your care. Over my many years of clinical practice, I have noted six general parenting strategies that seem to foster and sustain the healthy development of orchid children. Those six strategies are represented conveniently by the mnemonic O-R-C-H-I-D, which can bring to mind the following:
O: Allow your child to discover their own true self
In Alice Miller’s book The Drama of the Gifted Child (1979), the psychoanalyst noted that a commonality among many of her adult patients with serious mental health disorders was a childhood that disallowed, in some manner, the identification and flourishing of the individual’s own true self – that essential core that makes each of us who we are, that drives our values, passions and world views. Miller’s insight was that the sensitive, ‘gifted’ child, in his or her efforts to fulfil the parents’ hopes and desires, loses a full sense of self, and moves into adulthood defined by others’ needs and with a trailing emotional emptiness. Children need to discover who they are and what they can become. One simple approach, among many, for ensuring the full expression of your children’s genuine self is to provide regular opportunities – during family dinners, for example – for expressions of opinion or recounting of experiences by each child, without censure, judgment or subordination by others.
R: Establish predictable family routines
Family routines – activities such as eating dinner together, bedtime rituals, designated homework time, games or movie nights, or attending weekly religious services – are protective and beneficial for all children, but especially for children with orchid sensibilities. There is now a half-century’s worth of research supporting the efficacy of family routines in reducing household chaos, encouraging children’s sense of stability, decreasing common illnesses and infections, and fostering good mental health. Such routines and rituals are likely to benefit all children, and perhaps their parents and caregivers as well, but the sense of permanence and reliability that routines impart appears especially good for orchid children, with their vigilant sensitivities to life’s structure and dependability.
Thirty years ago, we studied a group of pregnant adolescent girls and found that those who had a greater sense of permanence, predictability and continuity in their lives also tended to give birth with fewer health complications. Routines and rituals, far from rendering life boring or monotonous, seem to have tangibly protective effects on the young people and families who pursue them.
A way of building a suite of routines and rituals in a family more inclined to anarchy is to have a family meeting in which an illustrated calendar of daily, weekly and monthly regularities can be proposed and endorsed by all. Routines and rituals can quickly become a kind of glue that binds the family together, especially during times of crisis or adversity.
C: Express your compassion or steadfast love (captured by the Latin word Caritas)
All children have a deep need for their parents’ love and affection. They also depend upon the love of their grandparents, caregivers, communities and siblings. But orchid children are especially in need of their caregivers’ constant, reliable presence and love. Sometimes that love is revealed with hugs and words. Other times, it is a provision for needs – for a good and healthy meal, an attention to teeth-brushing, or a constant and predictable bedtime. Still other times, a parent’s love is best demonstrated by the containment and censure of a child’s behaviour. A caring parent might well say: ‘I love you too much to let you act any way you want.’ Whether in the recognisable forms of reassuring words, physical affection or dependable discipline, that steadfast love is what all orchid children crave and need. Thankfully, for most parents, loving their children comes more or less naturally (rare misanthropic parents might be an exception). Over the first year of a child’s life, what self-evidently occurs is that parents fall progressively and ever more deeply in love with their baby – each infant uniquely and perfectly shaped to stir warmth and affection in their parents’ hearts. It is the steadfast, abiding character of your love – and the caring behaviour that your love elicits – that is important to all children, but especially crucial to your orchid children.
H: Recognise the human differences among your children
Some families find it more convenient or simpler to blur and obscure the usually obvious differences between their children. One-size-fits-all parenting, after all, is easier, and it conforms to the prevalent cultural value of ‘treating all our kids the same’. But such parenting risks overlooking and ignoring important individual differences in children’s needs and abilities. My core argument in The Orchid and the Dandelion is that kids – even siblings conceived and born of the same parents – are strikingly different, in their temperaments, their cognitive and behavioural capacities, their sensitivities to the environment, and their parenting and caregiving needs. As I point out in the book, no two children are actually raised in ‘the same family’. Differences in birth order, gender, personality and other factors render an individual child’s experience of the family different, to say nothing of the events, illnesses and changes of circumstance that alter parenting over the course of individual childhoods. So all of these factors conspire to make the family experience different for each child. All kids, but especially orchid kids, do better in families where the differences between children are celebrated not hidden, recognised not masked. You could attend to the singular qualities and capacities of your children by explicitly searching for and celebrating each one’s talents; by avoiding making assumptions about any child’s preferences for sports or music, science or art; and through making diligent efforts to probe, in one-on-one interactions, the deep, guiding currents in each of your children’s lives.
I: Ensure that your orchid child has time and space for imaginative play
Many parents, never having been told anything different, regard their children’s play as trivial, ‘childish’ or unimportant. It is in fact anything but unimportant. Children’s play, whether alone, with other children or with adult caregivers is crucial for their development and wellbeing. It is through play that children learn who they are as individuals, acquire the social skills needed to navigate complex peer groups, and encounter the need to compromise with friends’ demands and wills. It is during fantasy that they ignite their own creativity and discover the joy of collaborative imagination. Play is also one of the ways by which children recover and heal from traumas and difficulties. It is thus no accident that therapists for children use play and fantasy as one important modality for building a child’s ability to endure and overcome adversity and stress. Parents who encourage their children’s play, allow time for play to take place and who protect it from the distractions of screens and digital media are actively promoting healthy development and a child’s engagement with social relationships.
Protecting time for play is especially important today given the contemporary cultural bias, especially in middle-class families, towards filling children’s days with phrenetic, non-stop activities. In my clinic, I have often encountered well-to-do children whose every extracurricular moment is scheduled with language lessons, soccer teams, swim lessons and computer courses. I remember one child had a personal taxi driver who was contracted by her parents to move her from activity to activity, every day after school. But while the parents who arrange such breathless schedules are no doubt well intentioned, children need free time as much as, if not more than, any of us. Such time allows for not only the essential experiences of imaginative play, but also for reflection, reading, catch-up sleep, creative activities and time with friends. The movement toward so-called ‘free-range parenting’, where children’s unsupervised time is protected, is a welcome sign. You could further promote unfettered time for play for your children by setting parameters for ‘screen time-outs’, when electronic devices are temporarily banned; by engaging children in outdoor events such as hiking, climbing or camping in natural settings; and/or by facilitating agenda-less activities with the children’s best friends.
D: Help your child confront danger
As the parent of an orchid child, one of the most difficult and potentially consequential decisions you will have to make time and again is how to respond to your child’s expression of fear when they are faced with a novel or challenging situation. An example that I often use is when an orchid child is invited to a birthday party at which he or she will know the kid whose birthday it is, but few or none of the other invitees. Such a child might predictably baulk at wading into so novel and unpredictable a social setting. In this situation, you must choose between either honouring your child’s concern and fearfulness by allowing them to skip the party, or nudging your child forward into an uncomfortable but ultimately adaptive lesson in courage. It is a difficult choice and one with no easily prescriptive answer: you must make such decisions ‘on the fly’, using your intuition and common sense. It might help, as these situations arise, to engage your orchid child in a ‘think-out-loud’ conversation about both the drawbacks and merits of moving forward into a fearful but potentially growth-promoting adventure.
The rearing of an orchid child can be more time-intensive and fraught than a parent’s care for a more dandelion-like child. With their greater permeability and susceptibility to the world around them, orchid children are more reliant on their parents to buffer the impact of adversities at home or school, to hear out the high emotions that they will inevitably feel, and to provide the structure and dependability that they need. Of course, dandelion children need their parent(s) too, and yet there is only so much time in a day that a parent has to give, especially working parents who return home with little of themselves left to share.
In the end, you must give the love and attention you have, mindful of its importance to all children, while remembering that your orchid child will inevitably require, at times, even more of your care and even greater reminders of your steadfast love. Remember the H for human differences in the O-R-C-H-I-D mnemonic: strictly egalitarian parenting is a cultural myth; it is simply not possible. So give what you can when it is needed, knowing that different kids require different parents, sharing the burden where you can, while remembering that abiding, self-evident love is every child’s greatest need.
Another important question is what to tell an orchid child about his/her own sensitivity and reactivity. This is especially significant given an orchid child’s heightened sensitivity to social differences and judgments. Most orchid children, by the time they start school, are at least partially aware that they are somehow different from the majority of children, often even from their siblings. You might wonder how much these differences should be revealed to or discussed with your child. Orchid children might be aware, for example, that their feelings and sensitivities are more intense than those of other children. They might recognise that sources of their own discomfort (eg, socks wrinkled inside shoes or feeling excluded from other children’s play) can generate emotions more negative and urgent than those of other children. Or orchid children might feel less courageous than their peers when facing novel or somehow threatening situations.
Under such circumstances, I think your best strategy is to restrict the observations and thoughts you share to those that are responsive to your children’s own specific questions. Actually, this is a good approach to many parenting dilemmas over children’s questions: answer only those that are asked, and answer only when they arise. There is no need to sit down a six-year-old orchid child and explain pre-emptively how he or she is different from other kids: more sensitive, more fragile, more tender. On the other hand, if the child expresses dismay at her relative oversensitivity to what another child thinks about her, or how another child responds, judges or treats her (eg, ‘Why doesn’t Gabby like me anymore?’ or ‘How come Sam is braver than I am?’), having an age-appropriate talk about those questions or observations is a generally helpful and supportive thing to do. Such a conversation might be framed, for example, as a discussion of strengths and weaknesses:
You know how all kids, and even adults, have some things about them that are strong and other things that seem like weaknesses? Like your brother, Jamal: he is a really good artist, but he doesn’t sing very well, does he? He can run fast, but he’s still learning how to throw a ball. He’s a good reader, but he hates math. Well, you’re like that, too. You have a wonderfully creative imagination; that means you can dream up great games and amazing stories. But you’re also really sensitive when your feelings or another child’s feelings are hurt. That makes you sometimes easily hurt, but it also makes you a good friend and a good brother. So your tender feelings aren’t just a strength or just a weakness: they’re both!
One nicely presented aid to such a talk with a young child is the book Jess Was the Brave One (1991) by the Canadian children’s author Jean Little. It tells the story of two sisters, Claire and Jess. Jess is always the brave one, climbing trees, never crying at the doctor’s office, undaunted by thunderstorms. But Claire surprises herself one day, when Jess’s teddy bear has been taken by some older boys, by coming to the rescue and recovering her sister’s toy with a cunning story about the potential consequences of the theft. It’s a nice illustration of differences between children and how they express themselves.
Parenting an orchid child is no holiday. It can be trying and complex, both rewarding and troubling. But the outsized bounty of successfully nurturing a fragile child into a healthy and competent adult is an achievement worthy of our most diligent efforts. Most orchid children grow up to become people of not only exquisite, if sometimes vexing, sensitivity, but of dynamic creativity and extraordinary lives.
My book The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive (2019): a summary of 40 years of research on children’s sensitivities to their social and physical environments, set against a memoir of growing up in my own family of origin.
My TEDx talk ‘The Orchid and the Dandelion’ (2019): a short, accessible video rendering of the main points from my research, for a general audience.
The clinical psychologist Elaine Aron has a useful website describing her extensive work with highly sensitive adults, featuring self-tests, videos, advice and more.
My half-hour interview from 2019 with Dave Davies, the host of the NPR talk show Fresh Air.
The article ‘The Orchid Children’ (2009) by the science writer David Dobbs for The Atlantic (published online as ‘The Science of Success’): one of the first articles in the mainstream media on the individual differences in children’s susceptibilities to social contexts.
The article ‘On the Trail of the Orchid Child’ (2011) by the science writer Wray Herbert for Scientific American: another brief summary for a general audience.
The picture book Jess Was the Brave One (1991) by Jean Little, illustrated by Janet Wilson: a story of strengths and weaknesses for young children.
The book The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self (1979) by Alice Miller: a classic enquiry into the long shadow of childhood experience, from a psychoanalytic perspective.