Understanding Sensitive And Resilient Children

The Orchid: A colourful and fragrant flower that, while occurring naturally, is often specially cultivated and cared for. Many varieties of orchid are a challenge to grow even for professional growers. Orchids are sensitive to temperature changes, often need a steady supply of moisture, and require good air circulation.

The Dandelion: A robust and sturdy flower able to survive nearly anywhere. It can withstand both heat and cold and seems to grow even in the most unlikely places such as cracks in pavements.

But why all this talk of flowers? What do flowers have to do with children?

The central proposition of the book “The Orchid And The Dandelion: Why some people struggle and how all can thrive”, is that people, and children in particular, have different sensitivities. Through a variety of research experiments by Dr Thomas Boyce and his team, children were plotted on a spectrum of highly sensitive children to highly resilient children. Most children fell into the resilient category. They were named the ‘dandelion’ children, as they had only mild reactions to the stresses that they were exposed to in the experiments. But some children were what Boyce called ‘orchid’ children. These children were highly reactive to the minor stresses in the tests.

Things became interesting when Boyce dug deeper into the lives of orchid and dandelion children. He noticed that orchid children were overrepresented amongst those children most susceptible to a variety of illnesses, bullying and several other adverse outcomes in the period studied. However, he also discovered that some orchid children were the most healthy children in the entire study group.
When looking at family structure, childhood trauma and many other factors, it became apparent that the orchid children who had grown up with trauma were the ones who got sick, while the healthy orchids came from strong and supportive households.

Boyce concluded that orchid children were better described as sensitive children. Like an orchid, they fail in unhealthy conditions, but in optimal conditions, they do far better than any of their peers. Dandelion children, on the other hand, do well enough in a wide variety of environments, just like a dandelion. They may not be very spectacular, but they can weather adverse conditions far better than orchids.

Orchid children have it within them to either become some of the most celebrated and successful people in our society, or they may become those within our society who end up leading the most tragic of lives. When things start going badly, it is the orchids that get hit first.

Boyce and his team powerfully demonstrated this in an observational study they conducted on monkeys. These monkeys had been closely confined for several months due to construction work taking place on their enclosure. While sickness and violence increased five-fold among the monkeys, it was the orchid-type monkeys who suffered the most. They became sick most often and were also bullied more by the rest of the group, even to the point where the group killed and tore one monkey apart in a fight.

Why do these two personality types exist in the first place? Boyce strongly believes that orchid and dandelion dispositions are not merely a case of genetics but rather a case of epigenetics.
Epigenetics is a developing science that seeks to explain how an individual turns out, not just because of their genes, but also because of specific influences during development. These adaptions based on the conditions surrounding an individual have a profound effect on who that individual physically becomes. Even before a baby is born, particular influences can affect the baby to adapt itself in preparation for the world it is about to enter.

These conditional adaptations are seen in a variety of species. For instance, many caterpillars develop very different body types depending on what there is to eat around them in the first three days of life. In rats, the amount of licking that a rat pup receives from its mother affects their life outcomes in no small degree. Pups from mothers who engage in high amounts of licking have lower amounts of the stress hormone, cortisol, throughout their lives. The pups from mothers who engaged in little licking tended to be more aggressive, matured faster and generally seemed to be prepared for a life of threat, scarcity and reproductive urgency. This was not merely a genetic effect as pups that were transferred from low-licking mums to be fostered by high-licking mums also ended up having lower cortisol levels, and vice versa.

The best examples of conditional adaptations in humans are how a mental disorder in a pregnant woman can affect the timing of puberty in their daughter. Earlier onset of puberty is also evident in families where the father is absent. It seems these things set individuals on a path towards earlier engagement in sexual activities and short-term rather than long-term relationships.

Further studies on rats have shown that there were not just significant differences between the litters of pups from high-licking mothers compared with pups from low-licking mothers, but that there were also substantial differences between pups in the same litter. This was because the mother’s licking was not evenly distributed. Often the pitch, tone, intensity and persistence of a pup’s cry would influence how much licking they received from their mother.

Boyce uses this as an example to show that essentially no two children are parented the same. No two children grow up in the “same family”. While two siblings may start with what may seem to be small variations, a variety of influences may combine to give two siblings highly divergent life trajectories.

The point that I believe Boyce is trying to make is that the life trajectories of orchid children can be highly divergent depending on early influences. This is not to say that children in the dandelion category are entirely immune to all trauma. We do need to remember that this is all on a spectrum and even resilient children have their limits. It is just that orchid children’s sensibilities may cause trauma to have more tragic consequences.

This point is made very personally within the book as Boyce contrasts his own more dandelion-like disposition to that of his sister Mary’s orchid-like disposition. Her story does indeed show a life filled with great success but also of profound and devastating tragedy.

As I noted earlier, orchid children are rare in comparison to dandelion children, according to Boyce’s studies about 1 in 5. This means that most children are relatively hardy and resilient when it comes to surviving stressful conditions. However, as mentioned earlier, even dandelions have their limits, and many things that children experience in this world go beyond what children can effectively deal with. Too many children around the world are still subject to abject poverty, war, family dissolution, bullying, exposure to parental mental illness or addiction, and physical, psychological or sexual abuse both within the family and the community.

As the initial research was done in the early 1990s, the book spends several chapters describing the stories to date of some children that were part of the initial study. While the general pattern of orchid and dandelion outcomes can be seen to some extent, it also becomes apparent that the picture is more complicated. It seems that in a sense, we are all made up of various amounts of orchid-like and dandelion-like characteristics. The various aspects of our nature that are more orchid-like, to whatever degree, are more susceptible to the success or tragedy that accompanies these characteristics.

Boyce does reiterate that while he believes the orchid and dandelion are powerful metaphors, humanity can not be cut up in such a binary way.

Returning to the rat studies, it was observed that rats would imitate their mother’s parenting, in particular, the amount of licking, when they themselves had pups. This ability for us to pass on more than simply genes is an essential factor in what is going on. But it goes even deeper than that. Studies showed that when mice were taught to associate a specific scent with fear (the mice received a mild electric shock to the foot in the presence of the scent), this experiential learning was passed down to subsequent generations. The offspring of the initial mice showed a fear response to the scent despite never actually experiencing the electric shock treatment themselves. This ability for experiences to be heritable has made us reconsider whether the ideas of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck were so far off the mark as is generally purported.

Lamarckian evolution is the idea that characteristics acquired during the life of an organism can pass onto its offspring. In contrast, Darwinian evolution says it is the survival of the fittest that causes certain traits and genes to pass onto the next generation. Perhaps this is not a case of ‘either/or’ but rather ‘both/and’.

This ability for epigenetic marks to be passed down to subsequent generations has significant implications for how orchid-like or dandelion-like characteristics may continue within our families and society. It may indeed be the case that the way we parent is wired into us through the experiences we received, which in turn were wired into our parents by the experiences they received and so on.

We certainly seem to see this in the world around us. It requires a strongly concerted effort for people to change the way that they parent from the way they were themselves parented. This stands in the favour of those orchid children in supportive families. They become what their parents were without much effort. However, for the orchid children who grow up in destructive family settings, there is little escape from the generational cycle of trauma and abuse.

The central message of this book is that the children that cause us the most concern within our societies are also those who are most responsive to positive environments of support and care, allowing them to flourish in exceptional ways.

When considering the health effects that childhood trauma has on individuals, society has typically labelled some children as ‘vulnerable’ and some as ‘resilient’, depending on how well they seemed to survive whatever ordeals they were subjected to. But the research within this book shows that the children labelled ‘vulnerable’ would be better labelled as being ‘sensitive to their social environment’. That when put into secure, supportive environments, these children do not necessarily stay in a vulnerable state but are likely to become the healthiest, most robust and most successful individuals.

Some Additional Questions:

Why do orchid children become sick more often?

Orchid children are more sensitive to pain, not just physically but also emotionally. There is now an extensive body of research showing the links between how emotional pain can cause weaknesses in our immune system, making us more susceptible to illness. Emotional pain can often also be expressed in the body through a physical ailment such as stomach pains. So while these effects of emotional hurt can affect all of us, it is orchid individuals who are more susceptible.

Why are orchid children bullied more often?

Unfortunately, an orchid’s sensitivity to emotional pain, as well as their tendency to become sick more often, means that they tend to slide lower in more aggressive social hierarchies. The fact that they are consequently bullied makes them even weaker, which can often lead to further increases in bullying. In an aggressive and intimidating culture, orchid children can go from one tragedy to the next in ever-escalating severity.

Adults need to realise the ability they have to reinforce these hierarchies amongst children. This is particularly true in places like school. Studies here have shown that some teachers use dominance hierarchies in order to help them control the class. For example, they may take the dominant child’s side in a dispute or seek to avoid a conflict incident by allowing some children to be marginalised or excluded.

Boyce recommends a more egalitarian approach. However, I would like to caution against a high-control environment where the teacher must be an all-knowing presence in order to enforce this egalitarianism.

Aggressively seeking dominance tends to occur when people are in more direct competition with each other, e.g. the example used earlier with the monkeys in crowded conditions. Schools tend to foster direct competition by constantly comparing children to their peers. The very design of age-segregated classes promotes this.

It seems that humans will always create hierarchies as it is deeply ingrained within us. But whether these hierarchies are created through voluntary respect or based on aggressive enforcement will depend on how much we force children to be in direct competition with each other.