Approximately 1 in 5 children are more affected or stirred up by their environment and stand out in comparison to their peers. They are the kids who get more easily overwhelmed, alarmed, intense, sensitive, prickly in their responses, and passionate in temperament. According to Thomas Boyce at the University of California, these ‘orchid’ children are neurobiologically distinct and possess an enhanced receptivity to their environment based on genotypical differences. [i] They are more highly tuned into their environment unlike ‘dandelion’ children who are less aware and are more easy going in comparison.
Sensitive kids show greater receptivity and an enhanced capacity to take in their environment through the senses. It is comparable to radio antennas that are tuned for maximum receptivity so as to avoid missing any signals. While the type and level of receptivity differs in each child, they will show heightened sensory responses in visual, auditory, touch, taste, smell, kinesthetic/proprioceptor, emotional/perceptual areas. The possible combinations are endless and each child will have a continuum of receptivity when it comes to each sense.
Orchid children may complain the tags in their clothes are too itchy, sounds are too loud, smells are too strong, or some foods taste so bad it feels it burns their tongue. They are also more likely to suffer allergies and skin problems. It can be difficult to get their attention because they are bombarded by sensory information and are overwhelmed. They also seem to posses a natural brightness in comparison because of their enhanced receptivity to information and stimulation. Adults might see them as being overly dramatic or reactive but they are only being true to the enormous world that exists inside of them.
The neurobiological differences in orchid children make them more sensitive to child rearing practices – they will either wither or thrive. [ii] When they are raised in stressful environments they are greatly impacted unlike dandelion counterparts who fare much better. They are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, addictions, and delinquency as a result of such conditions. However, when orchid children are raised under ideal conditions with the presence of caring adults, their development can surpass their dandelion counterparts. “An orchid child becomes a flower of unusual delicacy and beauty.”[iii] Despite neurobiological differences and heightened reactivity in sensitive children, it is the relational environment they grow in that makes the difference developmentally.
What challenges are commonly faced when raising sensitive kids?
There are a number of challenges in raising sensitive children given they are so receptive to sensory information. They are significantly different than their easy going counterparts and require special attention by caretakers. Parents of sensitive children will tell me it can be difficult to have a child that appears to be so reactive in comparison to others. They often internalize their child’s behaviour believing it is their fault rather than making sense of how easily their child is stirred up by their environment. Parents of sensitive children have a hard time describing the differences they see in their child to other adults. Parents are often judged as being too overprotective and are likely to be misunderstood. It is fortunate for many orchid children that one or both of their parents may be sensitive too, aiding them in making sense of their child.
The more sensitive the child, the more easily they are stirred up.
Given the heightened receptivity of the orchid child, it should come at no surprise they can be easily overwhelmed and overstimulated by their environment. This is especially true in the early years when their brains are immature and more susceptible to being overloaded with sensory information. Their world can often feel too much for them with perfect storms arising from being tired, hungry, and frustrated all at the same time. This can lead to upset and outbursts, prickly or resistant behaviour.
Under ideal circumstances, it should take the average child 5 to 7 years for their brain to fully integrate the sensory information they receive with increasing speed and efficiency. Once brain integration is achieved, the child should start to show signs of impulse control, tempering in their emotional responses, and an appreciation for context. Orchid children may need more time with brain development by up 1 to 2 years, depending on their sensitivity levels and environment.[iv]
This potential delay in brain development has implications for schooling as impulse control and tempered emotional responses will arrive later in comparison to their dandelion counterparts. While they can be intellectually robust at the age of 6, their behaviour may seem immature with outbursts, upset, and a lack of self-control still present. Given a sensitive child’s enhanced receptivity to external stimuli, the prefrontal areas of their brain need more time to wire up neural pathways to handle the additional sensory information. In the meantime, they are at greater risk of being diagnosed with attention or behavioural problems instead of the late bloomers they actually are.
The more sensitive the child, the more easily overwhelmed by experience.
One of the common mistakes made with sensitive children is to give them more sensory information than they can handle because of their natural brightness. More is not better for an orchid child and is likely to trigger defenses to shut out sensory information. Sensitive children don’t need to be exposed to more stimulation, rather; they need more time and space to process it. Opportunities to play are some of the best ways to provide this space to a young sensitive child and creative solitude as they get older. The old adage, “a little goes a long way,” fits well with the sensitive child and their surroundings.
Sensitive children can become overwhelmed by emotional material as well. Feelings are vulnerable territory for most people but more so for the orchid child. Emotional experiences involving fear, caring, enjoyment, frustration, guilt, shame, loneliness, and rejection can lead to heightened responses. In young sensitive children separation can be particularly challenging for them with big outbursts ensuing. Temper tantrums can take on a life of their own with an increased intensity and length of time required for the expression of frustration and aggression. At the same time, their strong desires and caring can set them up for tremendous disappointment. They often imagine far more than they can ever actualize and become easily frustrated by their human imperfections. Their feelings can be big, overwhelming, and out of control – this is why they need strong caretakers who can help them move through these storms.
With time and good development, the sensitive child can form a relationship with their big internal world leading to tempering in their emotional responses. Until then, it will be the responsibility of their adults to ensure their tears still flow, they can express what bothers them, and they have a soft place to land when the world feels too much.
The more sensitive the child, the greater the need for strong, caring, adult attachments.
A strong attachment to a caring adult provides rest and reprieve in a world that feels too much for the sensitive child. The challenge is they often feel they are too much to handle, too big in their responses, and easily overwhelm their caretakers. It is critical for caretakers to respond in ways that conveys they can take care of them, handle their behaviour and emotions, as well as ensure separation is not used as a consequence or punishment.
Sensitive children need strong alpha, caring adults to tether themselves to for security and leadership. The adult may have to work harder to gain their trust as they are typically perceptive and can read false presentations well. There must a generous invitation for relationship characterized by warmth, enjoyment, and delight. Adults need to invite the child to depend on them and not be displaced from their caretaking role. Caretakers will need to take up a strong position in orienting the child to their environment, explaining what they have trouble understanding, and introducing them to people who will assume responsibility for them such as teachers, coaches, dentists, or doctors.
How can we give sensitive kids the best environment to grow up in?
While it is true all children need safe and secure environments to grow in, it is critical in deciding whether an orchid child will thrive or wither. The following strategies will help create healthy contexts and relationships benefiting all children but in particular sensitive kids.
1. Protect them from experiences that are too much.
When environments, relationships, and experiences are too much for a sensitive child, their caretakers need to read the situation and protect them accordingly. For example, a parent may sign a young child up for a music class only to experience them running for the door each time the noise starts. The child may find visual or auditory stimuli overwhelming and as a result, need to spend shorter times in these environments, if at all. It is important for the adult read what a child is capable of, even in small doses, and not shelter them altogether. Pushing them beyond their limits typically leads to the sensitive child either shutting down or exploding with upset.
2. Lead the child into vulnerable territory.
Sensitive children are known for their avoidance of emotional content that is too upsetting or alarming. They may shy away from sad stories in books and get scared watching children’s TV shows. Parents need to walk them gently in these directions when you need to, not pushing but inviting them to express what is going on for them. They may try to deflect attention from these feelings so reading the cues as to what is most difficult helps the adult understand what stirs them up most of all. When upsets happen in their life, they may need a cooling off period to reduce the intensity of the experience. After such time they will be better able to talk about what stirred them up but it will likely require an adult leading them there. Acknowledging their big feelings, naming them, and normalizing them helps them to form a better relationship with an internal world that often feels too big.
3. Bridge all separation and problem behaviour
When proceeding with discussions about behaviour, it is best to deal with it outside the incident, in the context of a warm relationship, and to touch the issue gently. When you convey what didn’t work, make sure to communicate the relationship is still okay. Make it easy for them to hear your words of guidance and keep your relationship strong. Incidents are best deferred to when intense feelings have subsided. In the heat of the moment you can simply inform them “the behaviour isn’t okay and you will talk to them later about it.” They may tell you, “I don’t want to talk about it,” to which you will let them know you will make it easy, quick, and as pain free as possible but sometimes things need to be said and dealt with.
4. Help them find their tears when needed
At the heart of resiliency in all children is the capacity to have their tears about all the things they cannot change or do not go their way. Sensitive children often have big expectations and plans that are not always realized. They may want good experiences to continue indefinitely, to be perfect and avoid failure, or to change someone’s mind when they don’t agree. The things they cannot change will frustrate them greatly with big eruptions ensuing, especially in the early years. When the intensity of these emotions is drained through their eruptions, holding them in their frustration until they can cry is helpful. In these soft, vulnerable tears are the seeds of resiliency in realizing they can survive when life doesn’t go their way. In order to help them shed these tears they will need strong, caring adults who are not afraid of their child’s big feelings. If a sensitive child’s tears disappear, a host of behaviour and learning challenges can be left in their wake. Restoring emotional vulnerability is the best avenue for bringing the child to rest again and resolving these issues.
While every child is born with differences in their inherent makeup, the reassuring answer is adults in their life are key in creating the conditions for growth. The needs of the sensitive child sheds light on the importance of adult attachments that is true for all children. If we can make sense of sensitive kids, we can help them flourish and express the wonderful potentials that exist inside of them. As caretakers of our children we have the power within us to significantly alter the trajectory of their development.
[i] Boyce, T. (2014). Orchid children and the science of kindness. Dalai Lama Centre for Peace and Education, Vancouver, BC. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mSrc0GFpJw
[ii] Ellis, B.J., Boyce, W. T. (2005). Biologial sensitivity to context: Empirical explorations of an evolutionaly-developmental theory. Development and Psychopathology. V. 17,(2), pp. 303-328.
[iii] Same as above
[iv] Neufeld, G. (2013). Level I Intensive: Making Sense of Kids. Neufeld Institute Vancouver, BC, Canada. www.neufeldinstitute.com.
Copyright Dr. Deborah MacNamara
Deborah MacNamara is a clinical counsellor and educator, on faculty at the Neufeld Institute and author of Rest, Play, Grow – Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). She has more than 25 years experience working with children, youth, and adults and speaks regularly about child and adolescent development to parents, childcare providers, educators, and mental health professionals. Please see www.macnamara.wpengine.com for more information.