Some children, practically from birth, show great sensitivity to changes occurring around them, react strongly to sounds, notice the slightest change in diet and are even influenced by the mood of the parents. Others, however, are less vulnerable and seem to cope better with the changes occurring in their environment, as if it didn’t concern them.
In this regard, a few years ago, psychologists at the University of California proposed a very interesting concept with respect to the way children react to the education they receive. They claimed that there are children who are like orchids: they wither in response to a difficult childhood, but thrive in a positive environment. At the other extreme there are children similar to dandelions, which are less sensitive to changes and show a more flexible attitude.
Orchid children are more sensitive souls
Since then, psychologists have begun to outline the theory of “Biological Sensitivity to Context”, according to which the children’s temper is a key factor that determines how to react to different educational styles. In fact, it was found that there are children who react more negatively to environmental stimuli, showing more fear and irritability, while others are able to better control their reactions and are more open and willing to explore.
Recently a group of psychologists from the University of Utrecht has confirmed this theory through a meta-analysis in which they gathered the results of 84 studies that concerned 6,153 children. They evaluated infant temperament, educational style of the parents and child’s development, taking into account different indicators, from behavioral problems to school performance.
Therefore they concluded that, in fact, there’re children who are vulnerable from an early age to the educational style used with them. These children are generally classified by their parents and teachers as “difficult children”, because they usually express disruptively the emotions and react more intensely to problems and conflicts.
A gene that is activated, for better or for worse
The idea that there are children who are particularly vulnerable to stress isn’t new. But the positive outlook that encompasses the theory of “Orchid Children” is new because it shows that even these children can thrive and achieve great things if they receive an education that promotes sensitive development.
One possible explanation to this phenomenon would be found in the genes. In this regard, the geneticists of Virginia Commonwealth University decided to study the influence of CHRM2 gene, which is linked to alcohol dependence, disruptive behavior in adolescence and antisocial behavior in adolescents. In fact, the chemical receptors of this gene in particular are related to brain functions such as learning and memory.
These researchers took DNA samples from 400 pre-school children to analyze the variations of this gene. At first the children had no behavior problems, so they were followed annually until the age of 17 years old, analyzing their behavior and the educational style of the parents.
Once the period finished the researchers found that when children who had a variation of the gene CHRM2 grew as victims of a negligent and emotionally distant educational style, became difficult teenager. However, when children who had the same genetic variation received a positive education in which prevailed love, understanding and sensitivity, they obtained greater success distinguishing themselves from the others.
Education matters, a lot
These studies show that, despite genetics, temperament or the type of nervous system that a child can have at birth, education plays a key role. Genetics is not a life sentence, a growing number of studies show that the gene expression is determined by lifestyle.
Therefore, when we have in our hands a “difficult” child, whether we are parents or teachers, we could start thinking that in reality is just a much more sensitive flower. It depends on us to maximize its potential, giving him/her love and be patient.
Slagt, M. et. Al. (2016) Differences in sensitivity to parenting depending on child temperament: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin; 142(10): 1068-1110.
Dick, D. M. et. Al. (2011) CHRM2, Parental Monitoring, and Adolescent Externalizing Behavior: Evidence for Gene-Environment Interaction. Psychological Science; 22(4): 481–489.
Boyce, W. T. & Ellis, B. J. (2005) Biological sensitivity to context: I. An evolutionary-developmental theory of the origins and functions of stress reactivity. Dev Psychopathol; 17(2): 271-301.