Parenting is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling roles there are. It is also one of the most difficult, and highly sensitive parents know this best. Although they often feel overwhelmed by the role, experts say these people can successfully navigate the complicated world of parenting.

Relatively recent research shows that there are two broad typologies of children: the dandelion children, who manage to thrive in almost any environment, and the orchid children, who wilt in adversity but thrive incredibly well with attentive care.

A child who is easily frightened, who complains about being scratched by clothing tags or sock stitching, who is more receptive to gentle correction than punishment, who has difficulty coping with major changes and is a perfectionist, who prefers to play quietly or is overly sensitive to pain, or who is best behaved when not around strangers, fits the profile of the orchid child, according to the questionnaire created by psychologist Elaine Aron.

After reviewing several studies on highly sensitive children, David Doobs concludes in an article published in The Atlantic that so-called orchid children “can grow up to be society’s most creative, successful, and happy people“.

At the same time, because their bodies have more work to do to cope with stress, their ability to build a strong immunity to viruses and bacteria is weaker. Studies show that orchid children are more susceptible not only to physical illness, but also to psychosocial and emotional difficulties.

But what happens to these children when they grow up? How is their development influenced by their “orchid” or “dandelion” constitution? How do orchid sensitivities develop throughout life? These are the questions that the paediatrician and professor Thomas Boyce has been asking himself after more than three decades of research into child development. Convinced that everything that happens in early life is never confined to the early years[1], Boyce wanted to investigate how children (then preschoolers) had developed since a study he had conducted 30 years earlier.

Does the trajectory of life (also) depend on sensitivity?

In his new research, Boyce contacted a few millennials who were representative of the group of preschoolers he had studied years earlier, in which he had identified four categories: low and high stress reactivity, and low and high exposure to adversity. In his book, Boyce gives the four categories evocative names—dandelions growing in meadows, dandelions planted on freeways, orchids growing in tropical rain forests, and orchids growing in frigid Alaskan office buildings. The former preschoolers were interviewed extensively, and the interviews were transcribed and analysed to determine how their profiles influenced their later life experiences.

The results of the study are preliminary, the researcher points out, noting that the subjects are between 30 and 40 years old and have decades ahead of them. In addition, none of the people interviewed fit neatly into any of the categories established in the laboratory, ranging along a continuum of sensitivity from dandelion to orchid. However, the study showed that there is a visible link between who the child is in their early years and who they become as they progress through life[2] and that the life trajectory of a person with an orchid constitution is overwhelmingly marked by adversity, stressors and, most importantly, the presence or absence of support from those around them.

The world can be an overwhelming place for an orchid child, but parental affection plays a key role in not only keeping them afloat, but in bringing out their extraordinary potential. But who (and what) will help an orchid parent to fulfil his or her mission, when even for the most robust of people, parenthood is “daunting, sometimes terrifying”?

About sensitivity and its facets

Highly sensitive parents are a minority (about 20% of the population are born with excessive sensitivity) who need to learn how to manage sensitivity so that it becomes an asset in raising and educating children.

Psychologist Elaine Aron notes that sensitivity has four key aspects: depth of information processing, strong reactions to environmental stimuli, empathy and emotional response, and high receptivity to subtle stimuli[3].

Highly sensitive people, Aron explains, process information deeply, connecting it to what they already know, comparing and questioning decisions made on the basis of old information in the light of new information. If a highly sensitive mother with a young child sees a pram, her mind will work feverishly, wondering how much it costs, analysing its features, comparing it to the one she already bought, perhaps wondering what would happen if the pram tipped over. Decision making can be an agonising process because of this habit of processing information. On the other hand, parents who process information deeply are more conscientious and more likely to make good decisions.

Studies by Aron and other researchers have found that highly sensitive people report feeling certain experiences more intensely, have stronger emotional responses to positive and negative images, and have stronger neural activity after viewing photos of strangers or people close to them that express happiness or sadness. The conclusion is that the intense emotional response of highly sensitive people is due to complex emotional processing (and not just because they are more emotional).

The ability to pick up on subtle stimuli makes highly sensitive people very effective in dealing with those who cannot express themselves.

The ability to pick up on subtle stimuli in the environment (for example, a sound, a smell or small details that others don’t even notice) makes highly sensitive people very effective in dealing with those who cannot express themselves—plants, animals and especially babies and young children. Being a good parent depends on many variables, from age, education, or social status to genetic inheritance and the environment in which the person grew up, but sensitivity is an advantage rather than a hindrance, Aron concludes, pointing out that empathy and sensitivity to detail guide parents in making the right decisions.

Highly sensitive parents report greater closeness and attunement with their children, even though mothers in this category find parenting more difficult. In the short term, highly sensitive people seem to be more easily overwhelmed by change, which doesn’t mean they can’t be very good parents, because “their sensitivity helps them to understand their child and respond more quickly and more appropriately to the needs of the child,” says researcher Michael Pluess.

How can highly sensitive parents thrive?

Parenting remains overwhelming for orchid parents, and the daily sensory and emotional overload tends to drain parents’ resources more quickly. In a book dedicated to highly sensitive parents, Aron offers a number of suggestions to make life easier for parents with an orchid constitution.

Coping with overstimulation

The best solution is to avoid overstimulating your child. As the threshold for stimulation varies according to the child’s sensitivity, each parent needs to understand how much stimulation their child can tolerate and avoid overwhelming them. Scheduling (and limiting if necessary) playtime with other children, identifying times when family members are at risk of being overwhelmed by external stimulation, organising things around the house, and taking frequent and short breaks can be effective ways to avoid overstimulation.

Highly sensitive parents also need to learn to say “no” and set limits not only for their children but also for themselves—a much more difficult task. In order to stay on top of their game, parents sometimes have to put off endless household chores, for example, choosing to rest before cleaning or preparing a simple meal for lunch, even if it doesn’t meet the highest nutritional standards.

Sometimes it’s not possible to put everything on hold or avoid overwhelming stimuli, so the only solution is to adapt to the overstimulation. Changing the place or the activity you do with your child, hugging a child or an adult (this simple action increases oxytocin levels and reduces stress hormone levels), ensuring good hydration and sufficient protein can all be useful suggestions for overcoming moments of impasse.

Accept that you need help

Highly sensitive parents are often intimidated by the energy and efficiency of other parents who juggle work and parenting with ease. Because their resources are always used up too quickly, they feel judged and misunderstood by friends. In addition, highly sensitive parents find it much more difficult to entrust their child to another person, even for a short time, before they are sure that this person is suitable (and, as we know, the highly sensitive parent needs a little more time to make a decision).

It’s less important whether those around you think you need help with parenting; the key is figuring out if and when that help is needed, Aron writes. If a parent decides that doing it all is too much, he or she can look for solutions, enlist the help of a friend or family member, or pay for the services of someone to take on some of the responsibilities, without letting guilt or comparisons undermine the growing need for help.

Simplify the decision making process

The hypersensitive parent tends to overthink any information in order to make a decision, thus complicating the whole process, even when it comes to minor decisions. Their emotional receptivity leads them to overprocess information. All parents love their children, but highly sensitive parents love their children even more, Aron argues, noting that this emotional excess leads them to weigh every decision as if it were “a final exam in the most important class we will ever take”[4].

To avoid spending all their energy trying to make the perfect decision, highly sensitive parents need to answer a few key questions: Does the decision they are making offer more time for rest or more inner peace? How important will the decision be a year from now or a decade from now? Do the decisions create a balance between the needs of the parent and the needs of those around them? Is there a backup plan? Aron’s advice is to act—for an hour, a day or a week—as if we were making a decision, to see things more clearly and to realise what it would be like to actually make that decision.

Although it is challenging, deep processing of information is a gift in terms of its positive effects. So is sensitivity. All that parents need to learn is how to use this gift to give security and love to their children, especially in a world that values sensitivity less and less.

Carmen Lăiu is an editor at Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.

[1]“W. Thomas Boyce, ‘The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive’ , Knopf, 2019, p. 252.”
[2]“Ibid, p. 285.”
[3]“Elaine N. Aron, ‘The Highly Sensitive Parent: How to care for your kids when you care too much’, Thorsons, 2020, pp. 25-38.”
[4]“Ibidem, p. 105.”

“W. Thomas Boyce, ‘The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive’ , Knopf, 2019, p. 252.”
“Ibid, p. 285.”
“Elaine N. Aron, ‘The Highly Sensitive Parent: How to care for your kids when you care too much’, Thorsons, 2020, pp. 25-38.”
“Ibidem, p. 105.”