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Helping Orchid Children Bloom

Is your child an orchid or a dandelion?

Is your child an orchid or a dandelion?

Orchid children are in the headlines again, with a Globe and Mail piece on how to help these highly sensitive kids bloom. The orchid child theory holds that some kids are more sensitive than others: sensitive to sensation, to social stimuli,  to criticism.

These are the babies who cry uncontrollably at the feel of an itchy tag, the toddlers who won’t wear socks with seams and the preschoolers who meltdown at the slightest hint of disapproval from a teacher. Those who support the theory claim that these kids, if given special care, can blossom into extraordinary adults. If neglected, their sensitive dispositions make them prone to learning disorders like ADHD, mental health problems like depression and anxiety, and a host of other physical and behavioral health issues.

They’re not talking about a small number of kids. Researchers believe 15% to 20% of children are “orchids”. That’s a lot of fragile flowers in classrooms and playgrounds

Or is it? Like most theories, the “orchid children” hypothesis has its detractors. Every article on this topic draws comments decrying the preciousness of parents who see their children’s “bad” behavior or hypersensitivity as a sign of hidden talents. The counter-argument goes something like, ‘These are just normal kids with over-involved, worried parents. It’s the parents who need to grow up, not a problem with the kids.”

To that, I can only say that I love the orchid child theory because it helped me make sense of my own daughter. When she’s carefully nurtured, my girl is a gem. When she’s under stress, she falls apart in spectacular ways. Just like her mama. This might sound like most people; who doesn’t fall apart under stress? You’ll have to take my word for it. Yes, all preschoolers are tough to manage. Not all preschoolers hide under the bed refusing to get dressed because their socks are itchy. I’ve taught preschool. I know.

Of my three kids, two of them are the flexible, laid back sort who can thrive in pretty much any conditions. They grow just fine whether I carefully attend to their every need or turn them loose with a smile and a distracted nod. Not so my older girl. Her world must be just so: carefully managed stable routine, stable school, lots of self-direction with just enough structure. She’s a daily challenge to raise. But also deeply sensitive in ways that make her exceptional: she’s creative, empathic and communicative. She often surprises me with her insightfulness. She’s totally the kind of person I want to be when I grow up.

It could be I just need to get over myself and my narrative about her special needs, or it could be that there’s something both exceptional and challenging about her temperament. Learning about orchid children, and viewing her through that lens, certainly helped me give her more of what she needs.

The great thing about the orchid child theory is that it supports every kid. Whether mine is a true orchid child or just a handful, she’s benefited from a more steady routine, very regular sleeping hours, added patience when it comes to discipline and more focused attention from her parents. What kid wouldn’t? Her little sister thrives with this approach too. It core, it’s just good parenting.

Here are some of the simple suggestions for helping young orchids:

  • Keep a very regular schedule.
  • Use gentle discipline methods, not stern punishments.
  • Have as stable a routine as possible.
  • Take care to provide your child with comfortable clothing, free from irritating tags.
  • Stick to a healthy diet.
  • Try to provide ample quiet time, and a quiet home environment.
  • If you can, choose a school that provides a low-stress, peaceful environment.
  • Practice mindfulness techniques to increase your own patience and presence.
  • Share those mindfulness techniques with your child to help her improve her own self-regulation.
  • Listen to what your child tells you he or she needs.

A lot of this is still guesswork. The research on what helps these highly sensitive kids thrive is still being done. Parents, teachers, social workers and doctors are muddling through the best they can with the sensitive kids in their lives. The payoff for paying special attention to these kids can be huge, though. Per the Globe and Mail:

According to the theory, the genes that make them so reactive to stress also make them responsive to positive influences and sensitive to social and emotional cues. So their higher risk of illness and behaviour problems is coupled with enormous potential.

Is there an orchid child in your life? Elaine Aron, one of the key researchers in this area offers a checklist for parents. Does thinking of your kid as a delicate flower rather than a discipline problem comfort you, or do you find this theory merely caters to helicopter parents?

Photo: Josh Berglund

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