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Stacey N. Doan, PhD
New research in developmental psychology suggests that some children are best described as "dandelions" they are resilient, easy going, thrive in lots of different contexts. "Orchid" children are more delicate...

My daughter E. was difficult even before she was born. She would pummel my stomach from the inside to express her dissatisfaction, when the noise levels got too loud, I ate something spicy or stood up too fast. I could feel what I thought were the tell tale signs of crying -  hiccups, and an almost imperceptible shaking, every time we went to see a loud movie or concert.

After she was born, E. continued her tirade. She screamed when the breast milk flowed too fast or slow, when we changed her diaper, or her car seat strap was too tight - and it was always too tight, or too rough, or too hot.  When she turned 18 months, if I raised my voice, even slightly, she would look away, her lips would trembled, and the tears would flow. At nearly two years of age, she still has not slept through the night. We have  given up on sleep training. She sleeps cuddled next to me on our bed, and if suddenly the warmth of my body were to moved, you got it - she would cry.

E. is what developmental psychologists described as high on "emotionality". According to traditional models of personality and health, children high on emotionality are at an increased risk for behavioral problems such as anxiety,  and depression. This is particularly true if there is stress in the child's environment (be it low quality child care, busy parents, or poverty). This model called diathesis stress suggests that children high in emotionality are more negatively affected by the environment. You can contrast them with the easy going kids, who sleeps well, is not easily upset, and moves with the flow.


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However, E. was also easy to laugh and loved  being tickled. She loved food, and enjoyed strong flavors like goat cheese and brie. She could sit still and pay attention, while her father read her three, even five books. She was not what I would call an anxious child. Here is one more thing about E. - she really loved anything soft and fuzzy.

A recent new theory "Differential Susceptibility" argues that past models of personality and health are incomplete. It argues that yes, children who are high on emotionality are more likely to be negative affected by the environment, but they also benefit MORE when the environment is positive. Specifically, these children are better described as "sensitive" rather than emotional. But being sensitive doesn't just mean that you are more likely to be affected by negative factors in the environment, it also means that you are also more likely to BENEFIT if the environment is warm and supportive. In other words, orchids and dandelions children are different in how susceptible they are to outside influences. 

Our research as well as those of others, have demonstrated that in the context of warm, responsive care, orchid children thrive, and benefit MORE than their easy going peers. 

What does this mean if you have an "orchid" child? For me, it meant being aware that E. was sensitive to a variety of things including people, objects, noise, touch... It was simply understanding that things that may  not bother me or any other baby may affect her strongly. She did not choose this, she wasn't being difficult, she wasn't being a "cry baby". 

After this understanding, the next step was for us to capitalize on that. We gave room for her to express her wishes within reason, we focus just as much on creating experiences that made her smile and laugh, as we did on minimizing things that made her cry. I tried to be minimize loud noise, rough objects. Most importantly, I stopped being judgmental. I stopped asking "why are you crying?!" in my exasperated, annoyed tone. Instead, I accepted her feelings as true expressions, rather than toddler manipulations. 

My focus became more on softening the edges of the world, and highlighting the colors, taste, and feel of things she loved. 

Do you have an "orchid" or "dandelion" child and how has it influenced the way you parent?