The first time I heard this analogy was at a child development conference 10 years ago. I had become interested in the genetic side of development and had wandered into a session on biological sensitivity to context. That sounds complicated but it’s really not– stay with me just a little longer because it’s one of the most important things I think parents could ever hear.
Biological sensitivity to context is basically a new way of looking at nature and nurture, it’s not the old “is it your genes or is it your environment” debate, but rather how both nature (genes) and nurture (environment) work together to produce development.
In a nutshell, it is the idea that some of us are more sensitive to our environment because of our genes, hence we are more biologically sensitive to our world, our context.
A Dandelion-Child is Resilient
No matter the conditions surrounding them– soil, sun, rain, they will thrive. Dandelions thrive in between cracks in a driveway pretty much as well as they do in a protective garden. Dandelion children are biologically resilient, their genes protect them from environmental assault. In some cases, these children grow up to be an inspiration, we wonder at their ability to thrive in spite of their circumstances. But in most cases, dandelion children represent the norm, children who grow up in families of various economic resources, with parents who were various degrees of sensitivity or strictness and they turn out to be successful members of society.
An Orchid-Child is Sensitive
Biologically, orchid children carry risky genes. They are highly sensitive to their surroundings– diet, parenting, and toxins, all have the potential to deeply affect the development of orchid children. But orchid children can also thrive given the right context. Just the right amount of sunlight, humidity, special food and a regular schedule of watering and orchids will bloom year-round.
And here is the great news, while orchid-children are more sensitive to negative aspects of their environment they are also much more sensitive to positive ones as well.
The question is of course, how does this translate to parenting? What is it that orchid children need exactly?
I think it helps to look at an example. This is a study led by my friend and fellow researcher Cathi Propper. In this study(2) we looked at how well babies regulated themselves when separated from their mothers (we measured this biologically using an index related to heart rate) three times at 3 months old, 6 months old and 12 months old. So basically, we looked to see how well babies could handle stress.
We also looked at the genes that regulate dopamine in the brain. We know that people can have two versions of this dopamine gene (DRD2), the risky version of the gene is associated with impulse control disorders, aggression, ADHD, substance abuse problems and perhaps overall a lower ability to handle stressful situations.
Here is what we found
Babies who had the risky version of the dopamine gene showed less regulation (more stress). They didn’t do as well when mom left the room for a short time. This was true at 3, 6 and 12 months UNLESS those babies also had mothers who were rated as highly sensitive. In that case, once those babies reached 12 months of age they had regulation similar to babies without the risky dopamine gene.
In this example, the babies with the risky gene are the orchid babies and the babies without the risk are dandelion babies. The orchid babies don’t naturally regulate as well as the dandelion babies. But if the orchid babies had a mom who was super sensitive, then by the time they were 12-months-old they had caught up to the dandelion babies and were regulating just as well.
So, orchid babies in this example were at risk for lower regulation and more stress. We know regulation is important for all kinds of success later on (see my post on regulation here). But with the right environment, those babies could develop good regulation and thrive.
So what was sensitivity in this study? That is a great question. Sensitivity was observed during play with the babies and trained researchers looked for several behaviors like positive regard for the baby, sensitive responsiveness to the baby’s cues, and animation. Orchid babies need moms (and dads, although they weren’t in this study) to be sensitive to thrive.
This idea that children with risky genes can benefit the most from their environment is a relatively new one. Most researchers are looking for vulnerability and risk that they miss the positive side of the story. But other studies have found similar results.
When infants had a risky version of another dopamine gene, the DRD4 gene, they were more likely to show problems acting out when they were 3 years old, unless their mothers were rated as highly sensitive. So, the effect of the risky gene was erased under the care of a sensitive mom.(3) In another study, researchers did an intervention with parents of children with high levels of acting out behaviors. The intervention focused on sensitive and positive parenting.(4) Only the children with the “risky” DRD4 dopamine gene showed reductions in stress hormones. In other words, the orchid children changed the most when their parents showed more sensitivity.
These findings are amazing. They show that sensitive parenting can protect our children from their own genetic inheritance. Perhaps they are born with risks, but those risks are not a sure thing. And especially for children at risk, the environment and parenting has an even greater effect.
So what does this mean for us in our everyday parenting? Well, we don’t know if our kids have a risky version of a gene or not. And in reality, a child may have a risky gene in one area, but resilient genes in several other areas. Most children won’t fit into the dandelion or orchid categories neatly. You probably see some areas where your child is likely more sensitive and need extra special care from you and other areas in which they thrive seemingly without needing a thing from you.
I think the take-away message is two-fold:
1. All children are unique and therefore “good” parenting will look different for different children.
Some of us may need to “hover” or be a “helicopter parent” because our children take more risks or need us more in that particular context. Some of us may need to stand back and let our children learn to take some risks. Some of us may know that our children are insecure in new situations and want us close. There is an infinite number of ways to be a sensitive parent and we are all just doing what we think our kids need from us. What they need can vary so much from child to child and from situation to situation. And usually, we are learning as we go along. I view each new stage as a little mystery and I don’t always know how to parent the “best” way until I’ve lived in that stage awhile.
2. Parenting matters.
It matters a whole heck of a lot, especially to some children. It can literally change the expression of certain genes. I bet most children have at least some qualities in them that are orchid qualities and they need us to be positive, sensitive, and responsive to their needs. What we do makes a real difference. Now, don’t get me wrong, we don’t need to be perfect parents, no one can be. But what we can do is fill up our parenting toolbox (here are some ideas 1, 2, 3) so we have strategies to deal with the times and behaviors that we find challenging as parents.
Practical Action Plan for Parents
- For one week observe your child. Record what stresses them out, what areas they struggle in, and where they are vulnerable. Record the areas in which they excel and in which they thrive. Perhaps your child thrives academically, but struggles socially or perhaps they are a social butterfly but struggle to focus on school work.
- Make a plan of action for yourself. Now that you have identified areas in which your child is vulnerable think about how you might be able to support them. If they are having trouble socially, can you arrange a low-stress play date? If they are having trouble focusing could you think up some fun focusing games and then work that into their school work? Don’t rush yourself, you may not come up with a solution in a day. Take your time and consult with friends and family, perhaps do a little research and come up with ways to support your child. Build up that parenting toolbelt!
- Connect with your child. In all honesty, this may be enough in and of itself. In all those studies parent sensitivity was measured during play or reading or some other unrelated activity. If you are taking the time to connect with your child, get involved in their interests and give them positive attention then you are doing a great job already! We all need reminders to do this from time to time. We get busy and other things take priority, but that playtime and connection, it really matters and in some cases, it may be the force that can even overcome genetic risks.
1. Ellis, B. J., & Boyce, W. T. (2008). Biological sensitivity to context. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(3), 183-187.
2. Propper, C., Moore, G. A., Mills‐Koonce, W. R., Halpern, C. T., Hill‐Soderlund, A. L., Calkins, S. D., … & Cox, M. (2008). Gene–environment contributions to the development of infant vagal reactivity: The interaction of dopamine and maternal sensitivity. Child Development, 79(5), 1377-1394.
3. Bakermans‐Kranenburg, M. J., & Van IJzendoorn, M. H. (2006). Gene‐environment interaction of the dopamine D4 receptor (DRD4) and observed maternal insensitivity predicting externalizing behavior in preschoolers.Developmental psychobiology, 48(5), 406-409.
4. Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., Van IJzendoorn, M. H., Pijlman, F. T., Mesman, J., & Juffer, F. (2008). Experimental evidence for differential susceptibility: dopamine D4 receptor polymorphism (DRD4 VNTR) moderates intervention effects on toddlers’ externalizing behavior in a randomized controlled trial.Developmental psychology, 44(1), 293.