How to Parent Sensitive (Orchid) Children

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Orchid How to Parent Sensitive (Orchid) Children

Last week, I fervently recommended this groundbreaking Atlantic magazine article, in which author David Dobbs explains a bold new theory of genetics — that “most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere. A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care.” Many introverted children appear to have orchid genes.

In response to the article, one thoughtful reader asked this question:

“How do we as sensitive people raise children who are sensitive to become orchids, without becoming hypervigilant about controlling every experience they encounter to ensure they are getting the love and support they need? I could see it leading to perfectionism and harsh self judgement with regard to parenting skills.”

For those who missed it, Dobbs (author of the original article) posted his own answer to the question. Here it is:

“The data supporting the idea that more sensitive, “vulnerable” people do worse than others do in bad conditions but *better* in good conditions is based mainly on studies of adverse conditions — and show repeatedly that the mere LACK of bad, really trying conditions is enough to let orchids fare better than others do. In other words, they tend to thrive under even ‘pretty good’ conditions, and don’t require extraordinary care; you needn’t build the best, most carefully climate-controlled greenhouse ever made; a safe but stimulating environment will likely serve splendidly. For parenting, this means doing the right thing most of the time, not all the time, and providing a good environment, not necessarily a great one, to make the most of a child’s high responsiveness to experience.

If that’s the case, then super-parenting isn’t needed. Bettelheim’s “good enough parenting” will do just fine.

I would add, regarding how to parent sensitive children, that if you’ve guarded against the most harsh experiences that can affect a child, it probably makes more sense to focus on providing lots of small, positive things than on being hypervigilant about protecting the child from every bump, insult, or troubling challenge. And anxious hypervigilance sends a message that the world is perhaps too dangerous to handle. Small expressions of support and confidence and reassurance send the message that though the world can brings trouble, we’re almost always up for it, and will recover from all but — and sometimes even those too — the most serious setbacks or injuries or insults. I think the pscyhotherapeutic notion of ‘mirroring’ is handy to think of here. It’s the idea of reflecting to the child an attitude about how the world works. (It has another meaning to, reflecting an image of the child, but I’m concerned with this other.) What’s good mirroring? Best example offered to me was, Your house burns down. All is lost, but no one hurt. Your stuff’s gone. You’re out sitting on the curb with the family watching the firefighters douse the last of the steaming rubble. And instead of freaking out, You put your arm around the kid and say, “It’s okay.” Because it will.”

I love this advice. But I want to answer one more question you might be wondering about: What if your child is subject to harsh, really harsh, experiences outside your control?

I asked this question of Jay Belsky, a leading proponent of orchid theory and a psychology professor and child care expert at the University of London. Using divorce as an example, he told me that even orchid children can withstand some adversity, if it’s managed properly. Orchid kids will be disrupted more than others by divorce, he told me. “If the parents squabble a lot, and put their kid in the middle, then watch out – this is the kid who will succumb.” But if the divorcing parents get along, if they provide their child with the other psychological nutrients he needs, then even an orchid child can do just fine.

Indeed, the parents of high-reactive children are very lucky, Belsky told me. “The time and effort they invest will actually make a difference. Instead of seeing these kids as vulnerable to adversity, parents should see them as malleable – for worse, but also for better.”

*There’s lots more to say about how to parent sensitive/introverted kids, of course.  Please look for more in future posts.

*Dobbs, a well-known science writer, is coming out with a book on orchid theory in 2013.

 


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16 Comments

  1. Valerie on 06.04.2011 at 18:33 (Reply)

    Hmmm. Perhaps this theory explains why some who grow up in horrible conditions are able to put it behind them and others are so emotionally and mentally unable to succeed and end up on the street or worse. It’s interesting that the hardy ones are described as weeds (dandelions) and the sensitive ones as Orchids. I know many stars who came from bad circumstances and I wouldn’t call them dandelions!

    1. Susan Cain on 09.04.2011 at 20:39 (Reply)

      David, I’d be curious to know your response to this. I recall vaguely that the dandelion metaphor comes from a Dutch source and was not intended as derogatory but simply as descriptive of resilience. Curious to hear more about the origins of the term, though, and whether you intend to keep it for your book.

    2. David Dobbs on 10.04.2011 at 03:41 (Reply)

      The orchid/dandelion come from vernacular terms used by the Swedes to refer to malleable, reactive, or sensitive kids (orchids) versus kids who seem less effected by their circumstances. That should be seen as spectrum, of course, just as we all recognize introversion-extroversion is a spectrum. Every metaphor has its limits, and my one serious reservation about the orchid-dandelion metaphor is the implied valuation it gives — that orchids are more valuable in some way than dandelions. But that’s not really true from either a humanistic or an evolutionary view. In terms of our species (or any group’s) fitness or ability to do well, the idea is that the existence of both types, or of a spectrum of response to environmental challenge, gives a group or a family adaptive strength; you need steady players as well as some who will react more sharply or sensitively to challenges.

      The implied valuation in orchids v dandelions misses this, if you’re thinking of it as a floral purchase. If you’re thinking of it botanically or biologically, of course, there’s no sense in which one kind of flower is more ‘valuable’ (to the biological world) than another. They play different roles, ultimately complementary.

      As I said, every metaphor has its limits. The value of a stark metaphor like orchids and dandelions, however, is that it has the power to replace the current, reigning stark metaphor, which holds that sensitivity is vulnerability: the risk model. But it’s not risk. It’s responsiveness, for better or worse.

      Hope that clarifies. There’s a bit more on this in my article (http://bit.ly/9OW1aP) and will be more yet in my book, though we’ll have to wait a bit for that.

  2. Another psychologist on 06.04.2011 at 20:36 (Reply)

    Hmm. I only agree with this partially. From both personal and professional experience I suspect sensitive children actually NEED small doses of difficult life experiences in order to learn coping skills. Shielding them and protecting them can lead to more vulnerability. Rather than buffering, they need firm but loving guideance that projects the message “You can do this”.

    1. David Dobbs on 13.02.2012 at 16:41 (Reply)

      I’m increasingly inclined to agree: The sensitive need to be not protected but challenged — but not overwhelmed. The key is to feel a safe core of social and/or family support in their life.

  3. Jlynn on 07.04.2011 at 07:49 (Reply)

    This is all very interesting but I am not sure that being introverted and being sensitive are necessarily connected. I think sensitivity is something everyone (introvert or extrovert) has to varying degrees and that it is “shown” in different ways. The notion that introverted kids need, in a sense, more care and protection is not necessarily the case. All kids need sheltering, but also need to feel some of the hurt so that they can learn how to cope and to use the support system of their family and friends to build confidence and become comfortable with who they are.

    1. Susan Cain on 07.04.2011 at 08:33 (Reply)

      Jilynn, good point to question to what degree introversion and sensitivity are connected– there’s actually research on this that I’d meant to highlight. Of the 15-20% of humans who are born “highly sensitive,” 70% are introverts, 30% are extroverts (but generally even that 30% reports needing more “down time” than your typical extrovert.) No one knows, though, how many introverts are “highly sensitive,” and there are many routes to introversion besides this particular profile.

  4. Susan Cain on 07.04.2011 at 09:42 (Reply)

    “I think that sensitive children give you clues rather clearly…hence they don`t really require hyper-vigilance but rather close attention to their signals. Soon enough the areas of sensitivity are well known and anticipated by the parent. Hovering is not necessary nor recommended.”

    This is courtesy of my mother-in-law Bobbi Cain, a very astute clinical psychologist at the University of Michigan.

  5. Kristen on 07.04.2011 at 11:06 (Reply)

    Thanks for all of this. I asked this question because there’s so much out there about what parents can do to raise smart, we adjusted children. We’re realizing we have more control over our children’s development than ever. We’re reading about Epigenetics and brain based theories, which are wildly popular now. Pediatricians are telling parents to breastfeed and to hold their babies as much as possible. While all this is good stuff, it does put a whole lot of pressure on parents and if we aren’t careful, we can create more tension trying to perfect all these parenting instructions. And I say we as introverts are highly sensitive to our environments because we need much less stimulation than extroverts so being in an extroverted environment will be overstimulating to us and we have to constantly regulate our reactions.

    All good stuff for me to think about as a new (introverted) mom!!

  6. Canaan on 07.04.2011 at 11:13 (Reply)

    The reader’s question is important and thought provoking, but I think it’s hard to think through fruitfully in the abstract. So: you go hiking with your child and his friend. Your child is bright and engaged but on the more sensitive/cautious/cerebral side, often leery of new sensations. His friend is more of a risk taker and tends to plunge aggressively into new challenges. The hike is going well. Then you come upon a rushing stream; it’s a little rough and splashing loudly over rocks, but entirely manageable. Your child recoils and clings. His friend jumps gleefully into the middle. I think the questioner was getting at two connected dilemmas: 1) assuming it’s not actually dangerous, should you try to cajole your child into the water with his friend, knowing that if he can gradually and gently be made to feel safe, he will enjoy it intensely – both the water and the campanionable play – but also knowing the cajoling/pushing will be resisted and might backfire, and 2) this was really the question as I read it: if the parents shoulder too much responsibility for constantly creating that safe supportive, nurturant environment in which the more orchid-like kids thrive – isn’t this a direct road to parental angst? You might have to stop the hike at length, spend substantial energy and effort to get your child near the water – and he may yet resist, recoil and actually suffer more from the added attention and frustration, all for the hypothetical payoff of having overcome the apprehension of the rushing water. But maybe it would be better for HIM to just sit and relax far from the bank, skip all the drama, and then carry on the hike when the friend is finished splashing about. Maybe it’s really the PARENT whose so keen on getting the kid in the water, and the kid would just as soon skip the stream and be perfectly happy to stay dry and look dreamily up at the clouds. Maybe that wet payoff is in the parent’s head: she’s sure that if she just expends enough energy, that orchid generating greenhouse can be built. But whose agenda is it to have that kid splashing in that river? Let’s stipulate that the kid would indeed benefit from plunging and splashing eventually, but HOW MUCH? IS IT WORTH IT? I don’t have the answer – of course it’s common sense, you have to know your kid, these things change with age, it’s case by case, etc. But I’d love concrete examples from other readers who’ve found comfortable middle ground here on specific when-to-cajole challenges …

  7. Elizabeth on 07.04.2011 at 12:45 (Reply)

    I’m going to have to echo Jilynn here and say I am not totally on board with the equation of introversion and orchid genes/ sensitivity, even if a high proportion of people with so-called orchid genes are introverted. If introvertedness is a part of inborn temperament then it should not be especially malleable with environment — you can’t make someone an introvert or not by changing their environment. But orchid genes are fundamentally plastic — how they are expressed (i.e., the behavior they are associated with) is highly dependent on environment. Maybe my understanding of the introverted temperament needs updating?

  8. David Dobbs on 09.04.2011 at 17:20 (Reply)

    One thing to keep in mind here is that there are a lot of meanings to the word “sensitivity,” which can confuse the question of how much correlation or overlap there is between introversion and sensitivity. Sensitivity is a matter of feeling the environment or experience more keenly; but other temperamental and personality factors might lead you to react to this either by withdrawing or internalizing a reaction, or by being more externally reactive. So while i imagine you can find different studies that find different overlaps and correlations there, there is — at least with the sensitivity at issue in the orchid-gene hypothesis — no *fundamental* connection. One is a matter of how strongly you register stimulus; the other (introversion v extroversion) is how you express or form your response.

    There is a way in which introversion, and Susan’s take on it, does reflect some fundamentals of the orchid hypotheis, however. A key implications of that hypothesis is that some traits and genes that can be disadvantageous in one context can be an asset in another. Sensitivity can serve your poorly in a highly abusive environment, but well in an enriching one. Likewise introversion, as Susan has been pointing out (and will show us more in her book, it seems), can serve you poorly in some contexts but well in others. The difference can hinge not only on outer environment but on other assets you can bring to bear. In that way the two ideas have much in common. I think one benefit of taking care NOT to conflate these different traits or realms, such sensitivity level and introversion/extroversion, is that it lets you see how different traits can combine productively or not-so-productively.

    I’ve just returned from a major conference on child development at which quite a few papers relevant to the orchid hypothesis were presented. In the weeks ahead — after a week off this week with my kids, who are on school break — I’ll be blogging about some of those presentations at my blog, Neuron Culture (link above, or at http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/neuronculture).

    Best,

    David

  9. […] you want to know more, I’ve written about how to parent sensitive orchid children: and science writer David Dobbs is publishing a book about it. In the meantime, you should know […]

  10. […] out this glorious essay by Susan Cain on parenting supportive children, introverted children, or socially concerned children, How to […]

  11. […] out this excellent article by Susan Cain on parenting sensitive children, introverted children, or socially anxious children, How to Parent […]

  12. Evq on 24.01.2014 at 08:42 (Reply)

    Unfortunately, we can’t control the teachers our children get.

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