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Hidden Advantages of the Sensitive Child

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When my son was a baby, he broke down in tears any time another child cried. My friends sweetly called it an “empathy cry,” but it left me on edge during play dates and Mommy and Me classes. And it wasn’t just another kid’s sobs that triggered him – he tended to melt down whenever there was a loud or unexpected noise of any description.

Two years later, he’s the same kid. He’s a happy little guy, warms up to new people quickly, smiles ear to ear. He’s not “fussy,” it’s different. He’s sensitive to his environment – he registers everything. He sizes up new people like a detective. A lawnmower turns on five blocks away, and he perks straight up like a prairie dog – “What dat noise, mama?” And yes, if another toddler’s squeal catches him off guard, waterworks and a blotchy red forehead quickly follow.

It’s never really struck me as a problem, but I’d never thought of it as an advantage either, which is what research is saying might be the case. Scientists are finding that, under the right circumstances, children who are highly reactive to stress may actually thrive better than their more easy-going peers. It’s a line of research that has been building over the last few years – profiled extensively in a recent Atlantic article – and it’s changing the way that psychologists (and parents) look at the question of nature vs. nurture.

One of the latest studies on sensitive kids was published earlier this year in the journal Child Development. Using a sample of 338 kindergarteners, the researchers tested how easily stressed the children got, and then measured their behavior and school performance. They exposed the children to potentially tense situations – for example, asking them to repeat back a string of numbers while correcting their mistakes, putting two drops of concentrated lemon juice on their tongues, or interviewing them about their friends, likes, and dislikes.

While the kids were in the hot seat, the scientists measured their physiological reactions, gauging how sensitive the children were to stress. Each of us has an innate system – the “fight-or-flight” response – that helps us cope with challenges. But how easy it is to trigger that system, and how quickly we recover, differs depending on our wiring. By measuring the kids’ biological reactions – faster heart rate and breathing, sweat production, and increases in the hormone cortisol – the researchers figured out who felt the most anxiety under pressure.

Then the parents answered questions about the kids’ family lives, and teachers answered questions about the kids’ behavior at school. For the sensitive kids, more anger and fighting, financial hardship, or “harsh and restrictive parenting,” at home made for a dip in social skills. But equally sensitive children in more positive home environments fared well – even better than their cool-headed counterparts. The reactive kids from supportive homes had the highest rates of prosocial behaviors (helping, sharing, inviting others to play), the lowest levels of behavioral issues (hostility, conduct problems) and the highest academic gains as the school year went on.

Meanwhile, the kids who remained calmer during the challenges were more resilient when it came to their home environment. They suffered less overall when family life was hard, which the scientists take to mean that low reactivity acts like a buffer in stressful surroundings.

The outcomes support new terminology that some kids are like dandelions – hardy and able to grow almost anywhere – while others are more like orchids – delicate, but thriving beautifully with the right care. As with most personality traits, the flower distinctions are not either/or, but represent a spectrum. Each of our little ones has a mix of “dandelion kid” and “orchid kid” genes, but it’s possible that one set of traits will predominate.

When I read the study, I thought about my son’s blotchy forehead. Now, I obviously haven’t hooked him up to a monitor while firing number sequences at him, but I’m guessing it takes very little to trigger his tiny nervous system. My first reaction was the standard questioning of my parenting choices: Is daycare too stressful for him? Should I never have let him cry at bedtime?

But what the research really confirms is that I don’t need to help my son overcome or grow out of his sensitivity. He’s going to react strongly at times if something strikes him the wrong way – that’s just the way he’s wired. My job is to stay calm myself (my first challenge, since I’m the one who gave him his sensitivity genes), empathize, and try to help him get back in the game. I like knowing that what some people might see as a vulnerability could actually be his greatest strength.

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