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A case for Orchid Children: The research

Submitted by Rita Brhel on 28 December 2021

The name for the Orchid Hypothesis comes from a Swedish folklore tradition in which some children have long been referred to as "dandelions," meaning essentially children able to thrive under almost any set of conditions.

As developmental psychologist W. Thomas Boyce of the University of British Columbia (Canada) and developmental pediatrician Bruce Ellis of the University of Arizona (USA) point out in "Biological Sensitivity to Context," their pioneering article on the subject, "orchid children" by contrast have a heightened sensitivity to their environment. Unlike the more resilient dandelion, the orchid's survival is "intimately tied...to the nurturant or neglectful character of the environment." In neglectful circumstances, the orchid "promptly declines," while in nurturing and supportive environments, it blossoms into "a flower of unusual beauty."

When exposed to significant trauma or prolonged stress in early childhood, certain genetic variants (gene alleles) have been found to put a person at greater risk of addiction, violence, mental health issues, and other challenges. 

Alternatively, when exposed instead to more benevolent conditions, the Orchid Hypothesis suggests that these same alleles can just as easily give rise to astounding feats. 

Thus, rather than seeing particular genetic psychological, behavioral, or affective (emotional) disorder, the Orchid Hypothesis offers the very exciting possibility that these less desirable effects are merely the flip side of a genetic disposition ripe with potential.

Orchid Genes at Work

The Orchid Hypothesis (also sometimes referred to the Plasticity Hypothesis, the Differential-Susceptibility Hypothesis, or simply the Sensitivity Hypothesis) has increasingly come to challenge the genetic vulnerability or stress-diathesis models. 

These latter models, in focusing solely on vulnerability, have tended to see only the maladaptive nature of certain genetic variants. What proponents of the new theory aptly point out, however, is that the vulnerability model fails to account for just how such troubling genetic variants have survived the process of natural selection. As Dobb argues, the vulnerability model has been unable to explain how genes "so maladaptive" to human society should not have yet been "selected out."

What this new line of research has the potential to provide is a way out of this nagging evolutionary quandary. Ellis, Boyce, and colleagues explain that what may look like maladaptive behaviors in certain contexts might instead be viewed as "adaptive variations" in another. Thus, particular behaviors deemed to be "distracted" or even aggressive in the context of elementary school math class, for instance, might instead be highly adaptive responses to stressful conditions.

The shift in focus has given rise to both a re-examination of previous data and an explosion of new students in the field. Scientists are now busily examining the potential that so-called genetically vulnerable individuals have for flourishing and even surpassing their more stalwart or genetically protected dandelion brothers and sisters when nurtured under the right conditions.

One of the major studies to help bolster the Orchid Hypothesis was begun in 2004 by Marian Bakermans-Kranenburg, a professor in the field of child and family studies at Leiden University (The Netherlands). Bakersman-Kranenburg surveyed a group of 1- to 3-year-old toddlers selected based on their engagement in higher rates of externalizing behaviors including kicking, screaming, tantrums, hitting, and biting (as rated by their parents and verified in laboratory settings). 

The group in question was then divided into a control group and an experimental group, with this second groups receiving a system of video-feedback intervention technique. As Bakermans-Kranenburg explained on the Leiden University website, the intervention system was specifically designed to help "promote positive parenting and sensitive discipline."

What Bakermans-Kranenburg and her research team found as astonishing. Not only did the group that received this intervention decrease their externalizing behaviors significantly more than the control group (a finding not entirely unexpected), but much more strikingly, it was found that those children identified as having the gene allele associated with greatest risk for ADHD (allele DRD4-7R) actually considerably outdid their counterparts in decreasing antisocial behavior after receiving the intervention. 

The results showed that upon positive parental intervention techniques, the children in the study with the highest genetic risk for ADHD showed a much higher rate of improvement than those toddlers with the supposedly more protective genetic makeup. The at-risk children managed to decrease their externalizing scores by 27%, whereas the protected children only lowered theirs by 12%.

A more recent study concerning the effects of stress on 5- and 6-year-olds resulted in similar findings. The study, led by Jelena Obradovic of Stanford University in California (USA) and involving one of the pioneers in the field, Boyce, surveyed the school-aged children performing stressful tasks, such as the recitation of number sequences as well as interviews with strangers. After these tasks, the researchers measured the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the participants' saliva and measured their heart rates to ascertain each child's individual physiological sensitivity to stress. The researchers also measured the levels of stress in each child's home, as determined by a series of indications including marital discord, parental overload, and financial stressors. 

Like Bakermans-Kranenburg's study, those children found to be the most biologically sensitive to stress (or the most orchid-like) scored both highest and lowest in terms of school readiness and what Obradovic refers to as socioemotive behavior. The more stress-sensitive children outperformed their less stress-sensitive kindergarten colleagues when they came from families with lower stress indicators and inversely tended to do worse than their dandelion friends when exposed to higher levels of stress or adversity in the home.

In a third study, conducted by Mariska Klein Vederman and colleagues at Leiden University in 2006, a group of first-time mothers was given a selection of parenting intervention techniques while a control group was given none. The parental intervention consisted of four sessions in sensitivity training for mothers of 7- to 10-month-old infants, which was designed to help these women increase their maternal responsiveness. 

The results of the study were published in the Journal of Family Psychology in the article, "Effects of Attachment-Based Interventions on Maternal Sensitivity and Infant Attachment." What they showed was that the intervention training had resulted in higher levels of security of infant attachment, as was expected. Again, however, the children who benefited most from this sensitivity training were those rated as most highly reactive in general.

The above studies all serve to offer sound evidence of the Orchid Hypothesis at work. All three of these studies suggest that some people are more sensitive to their environments, for better or worse. This hypersensitivity can work to make some children more prone to what some psychologists call externalizing behaviors, but under the right conditions, this sensitivity can also help drive them toward extraordinary success.

Challenges to the Research

The research into the Orchid Hypothesis is certainly good news for any parent worried that their child's hypersensitivity will inevitably spell difficulties down the road. Likewise, it may help assuage the concerns of those parents finding themselves as odds with current medical paradigms and treatments. What seems clear in any event is the fact that no longer can a child's challenging behavior be viewed outside this larger contextual field. Given the right set of conditions, orchid children have the potential to excel spectacularly. 

The question remains, of course, whether or not our current educational systems and parenting models might help or hinder such a process.

One thing that does concern me, and something that has been remarked upon by critics of the orchid-dandelion metaphor, is the divvying of our children into overly rigid or reductive categories. As David Shenk suggests in his blog, The Genius in All of Us, this particular metaphor might at best be too obtuse to be of use in real life. As he writes, though "the 'orchid' metaphor is a provocative way to illustrate that certain genes or combinations of genes might increase plasticity, the 'dandelion' half of the metaphor strongly suggest that 'most of us' don't have very much plasticity - i.e., that the dandelion kids don't have much potential to be either down-and-out or enormously successful."

What Shenk decries, therefore, is not the science itself but rather the implications generated by an uncritical acceptance of the orchid-dandelion metaphor. According to him, we should be able to "recognize certain extraordinary orchid alleles without rhetorically ghettoizing the other alleles as not-very-plastic dandelion weeds." To my mind, this is certainly problematic, particularly should we begin to equate orchid genes with gifted ones (a stance which, by the way, Dobbs wholeheartedly refutes).

Yet, while Shenk is specifically attuned to the problem of seeing some children as "less plastic," or less adaptable than others, the emphasis of my concern differs slightly. It seems to me that the most pressing danger lies not in denying most of our children the potential for plasticity or adaptability offered their orchid brethren, but rather it lies in thinking any of our children largely immune to prolonged adversity or hardy enough to sprout up in metaphorical sidewalk cracks. While some of our children may be naturally more resilient to stress and other challenges, all of our children certainly benefit from our engaged, attuned, and intensive nurturing. 

Thus, though we should remain cognizant of their specific ways in which each child's needs may differ, I hesitate to suggest any child be offered anything less than "greenhouse care." A too reductive reading of scientific data is always dangerous, but it is particularly so when questions of parental attachment and responsivity are at play.

To be fair, I'm quite sure Dobbs and other proponents of the Orchid Hypothesis would, without questions, agree. In his response to Shenk, Dobbs argues that orchids and dandelions are merely two ends of a spectrum (like introversion and extraversion) rather than two entirely distinct categories. Because there are anywhere from five to 15 genes in question (genes whose variants have been identified as having an impact on individual temperament), Dobbs explains, it is likely that most of us have some mix of orchid and dandelion genes.

As Dobbs freely acknowledges, there is always the possibility that some of the more complex readings of the data may get lost in translation. Nevertheless, he believes that most readers will be able to make the distinction between a working metaphor and a black-and-white system of classification. In the end, no matter which floral moniker we choose to attach to our children, I think this line of research offers much for parents to take away:

  • First and foremost, I hope this latest evidence will serve as a reminder that environment really does count.
  • Should we have forgotten just how importance our presence is in our children's lives, or how vital the nurturance and guidance we provide them, or even how important reducing our own stress can be to their well-being, then let this be a gentle reminder.
  • Finally, I hope these findings might also help to reassure parents that what sometimes might seem to be our children's most challenging behaviors may in fact be their most precious (individually, collective, evolutionary) gifts.

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This is the final in a 2-part series by Sheena Sommers, MA, of Canada while she worked toward a PhD in History with a special interest in childbirth, maternity care, and childrearing trends. In Part 1, we were introduced to the orchid child.

In 2019, Boyce released a book about the Orchid Hypothesis research, The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive.

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