Dr. Thomas Boyce, a popular child development researcher, says that children can be classified as either dandelions and orchids.
Children who fall under the category of dandelion, like the flower, can be described as resilient and often unfazed by their surroundings. Meanwhile, children are said to be orchids if they are highly sensitive to their environment and are biologically reactive to the circumstances presented to them.
Boyce, who is also an emeritus professor of pediatrics and psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, said that he has dealt with both types of children. For nearly 40 years, he has been studying how humans, especially children, respond to stress.
Dandelions, Orchids In The Lab
To understand how children biologically respond to everyday stressors, Boyce recruited young volunteers for a laboratory experiment where they were asked to participate in mildly challenging tasks such as recounting a series of numbers or speaking to an examiner they have never met before.
The researchers noted the stress response of individual children by analyzing their cortisol system, which releases the stress hormone cortisol and the autonomic nervous system responsible for a physical response such as sweaty palms and dilation of pupils.
"There were some children at the high end of the spectrum, who had dramatic reactivity in both the cortisol system and the fight-or-flight system, and there were other children who had almost no biological response to the challenges that we presented to them," he told NPR in a recent interview.
They also found that children who are more susceptible to stressors (orchid) are also more likely to experience physical ailments. The aforementioned stress response systems both have an influence on a person's immune system, able to alter how the body fight virus and bacteria.
Stress can also affect the cardiovascular system, raising the risk of hypertension and other related ailments in adulthood. The same patterns of response to stressors might also manifest as psychosocial and emotional issues.
Growing Up As An Orchid Child
Parents might find it more challenging to raise an orchid child but, given supportive and nurturing environments, they can thrive. Routine can provide great comfort to children who are more susceptible to stressful circumstances.
"Orchid children seem to thrive on having things like dinner every night in the same place at the same time with the same people, having certain kinds of rituals that the family goes through the week to week, month to month," Boyce said.
Boyce discusses orchid and dandelion children in his new book The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive published by Penguin Random House.