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Why Being a Sensitive Child Can Help Your Kid Later On

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At the playground earlier this week, my three-year-old and his best friend were testing out their “loud lion roars” at each other, laughing and taking turns as they made funny faces and scratched the air with their tiny claw-hands.

Close by, a five-year-old, double the size, decided to join in the game and lunged at them – his volume and teeth-baring intensity dwarfing that of my little guy. I watched my son to see how he reacted. His eyes opened wide and he paused for a minute, startled. Then, his bottom lip came out, his cheeks turned red and blotchy, and tears sprinkled down his face.

My son is a sensitive creature. He has always reacted strongly to noises and most things unexpected or overwhelming: when he was a baby, if another little one cried or screamed he would burst into tears. Now, if you grind coffee, or turn on the vacuum cleaner without warning, he’ll jump. If friends get too loud or rambunctious, after awhile he reaches a melting point.

He’s hard-wired this way. He’s not putting on an act or looking for attention, I can tell his sensitivity is genuinely programmed in his physiology. Some might believe that children who are sensitive (especially boys) need to toughen up, but I’ve never seen it this way. I see his reaction to strong, sudden, or novel stimuli (the technical term for loud, unforeseen lion roars) as a characteristic of his temperament – the biological, inherited stance toward the world that he was born with.

In fact, research confirms that these aspects of our kids’ personalities – for example, being tentative around new places and people or, on the flip side, diving right into the action – do indeed come down to physiology.

And a new study this month in the journal Development and Psychopathology builds on this idea, suggesting that not only do our children have unique chemical responses to the world, but these responses (even the shy and cautious ones that we so often label as undesirable) actually have real advantages.

In the study, researchers at the University of Rochester monitored the stress responses of a group of 200 toddlers. They gathered background on the two-year-olds’ home environments, determining how much family conflict they were exposed to and their overall classification as a “dove” – a child who clung to parents or froze in unfamiliar settings – or a “hawk” – a bolder, more fearless child. The toddlers were exposed to a mild stress by hearing a simulated phone conversation in which two parents argued.

Overall, kids who were exposed to high levels of aggression and fighting at home responded differently to stress than those with more copacetic home environments. But the doves and the hawks had unique reactions to the experiment. The doves’ cortisol levels went up (a natural chemical response to heightened stress), while the hawks’ cortisol levels stayed the same or went down.

In other words, the doves got a chemical shot of stress hormones when things got tense. And the hawks either didn’t register the environment as stressful at all or were physiologically suppressing their stress response.

Since no one likes to see their child upset, the hawk reaction may seem better to a lot of us – but that’s not really so. We already know from the discussion of orchid versus dandelion kids that, under the right conditions, sensitive kids often turn out better than their cool-headed peers. And kids who are sensitive to stress may have a tough time with transitions and instability, but they’re also more likely to be focused, attentive, and observant. Meanwhile, those who seem resilient and tough often move easily through the world, but they’re also more likely to be aggressive, inattentive, and unaware of others. The researchers in the current study suggest that both temperaments are evolutionarily adaptive in their own respects.

Of course, none of us is all dove or hawk. We each have a random assortment of genetic tendencies. My son may ask me to close the windows if the neighbor’s leaf blower is on, but he’s easy going the rest of the time, and he’s also highly adaptable, warm, and friendly – having no problem meeting and charming new people (a trait he gets from my husband).

But the point is that while we may value extroversion and resiliency – and hope for our kids to always be easygoing and brave, underneath, biology tells a different story. Sometimes what seems like a disadvantage for our kids could be one of their greatest strengths in life.

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