The Concept Of An 'Orchid Child' Helped Me Understand My Highly Sensitive Child -- And Myself

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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As a parent, you hear all the time about how strong and sturdy kids are. If there is something difficult going on in your family life, or if something less than awesome happens to your kid, people will try to console you by saying, “Oh, your kid will be fine. Kids are resilient!”

While I think that’s true to some extent, I do wonder if some kids are built to fare better than others. As a highly sensitive person myself – and the mom of one very highly sensitive child – I know that stressful situations can have a particularly strong impact on some people. We sensitive people feel everything intensely. And some of us don’t “bounce back” from stressful situations as easily as others.

In a fascinating bit of research, human development specialists Bruce J. Ellis and W. Thomas came up with a term for these kind of children. “Orchid children” (from the Swedish term, orkidbarne) are genetically sensitive children who are more profoundly affected by their environments than others.

Ellis and Thomas, whose research on the subject appeared in the journal, Development and Psychology, compare “orchid children” to “dandelion children,” who seem to be able to survive (and even thrive) in whatever circumstances you put them in. These are the durable, resilient children so many of us hear about.

The researchers found some genetic markers that set orchid children apart. According to Scientific American, children with genes linked to certain enzymes or brain chemical receptor are more likely to have traits of orchid children. In contrast to dandelion children, orchid children are affected more by the parenting and home-life they are exposed to growing up – for better or worse.

Think of orchid children as delicate flowers. For these children, nurturing their emotional sensitivities is as essential as watering a flower and giving it sunlight. If their sensitivities are neglected, they will dry up and wither away.

However – and here is the silver lining – these children also have the capacity to become beautiful, dazzling flowers. As Ellis and Thomas put it, under the right circumstances, an orchid child can become “a flower of unusual delicacy and beauty.”

This is a striking concept, and definitely validating for those of us who were orchid children growing up, or are raising an orchid child ourselves. Admittedly, too, it puts a lot of responsibility parents to create harmonious environments for their orchid children to thrive in.

Look, we parents are not perfect. I know that before I really “got” my orchid child, there were times I probably raised my voice at him more than I should have, not realizing that for a child like him, even a little yelling can feel like an onslaught of punishment.

Over the years, as I have come to accept that my child is more sensitive than others, I’ve learned that there are few key ways to keep my orchid child’s sensitivities in check. Here is my cheat sheet for raising an orchid child:

1. Remember that your child is different than other children.

Your top priority is to accept them for who they are. Stop trying to make them tougher or more resilient. This will only backfire.

2. Keep things chill at home.

Overscheduling, stress-y environments, loud noises, too much fighting – all of these can mess up the systems of a a sensitive child. It’s not always possible to control that, but know that when your child seems moodier than usual, simply taking stock of the vibe at home might help you understand what’s going on with your kid. Keep in touch with teachers to find out if anything particularly intense or troubling has been happening at school, too.

3. Your sensitive child has special gifts; look for them.

Most sensitive children are “old souls.” Feeling things intensely means that they look at the world in fresh ways – deep ways – and this often comes with unusually potent gifts. Help your orchid child find these gifts, nurture them, and when your child’s self-confidence is low, remind your child of all the amazing qualities they have to offer.

4. You’ll need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to discipline.

Orchid children take things more personally than other kids. Yelling and exclusionary tactics like time outs are going to get under their skin more than other kids. I’m not saying you can’t discipline orchid kids: you can and must! But you’ve got to make sure your discipline tactics are gentle, provide modes of reconnection, and a constant validation of feelings.

None of this means that we should be push-overs parents with our orchid kiddos, or that we need to walk on eggshells around them. Boundaries are good; rules are awesome. Even orchid children need to learn how to deal with failure and how to manage situations that seem to flare up their sensitive nature.

But we need to think about how we parents deliver and present all this stuff to our orchid children. We need to remember that some kids need a little extra hand-holding and TLC than others. And that’s OK.

Most of all, we need to love the heck out of our orchid kids. Deep within their extra-sensitive little selves are the most delicate, profound, highly attuned souls just waiting to make their mark on the world – if we only let them.

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