‘Orchid’ children’s stress can bloom into strength

Vulnerability
to behaviour and learning problems boosts potential with the right kind of care
and attention, study finds.

They
are called “orchid children,” highly sensitive youngsters who are vulnerable to
behaviour and learning problems if they live in a stressful environment, but
nevertheless can outperform their peers if they come from a supportive home.

Research
published Friday bolsters a new theory that there is a positive side to traits
and genes associated with susceptibility to emotional problems and cognitive
deficits.

It
recasts those vulnerabilities as potential strengths, and says they can help
children excel, given the right kind of care and attention.

The
findings should help teachers, daycare providers and parents understand and
harness the potential of children who are highly reactive to stress, and as a
result may be more anxious or disruptive, said Jelena Obradovic of Stanford University
in California.

“Parents
and teachers may find that sensitive children, like orchids, are more
challenging to raise and care for, but they can bloom into individuals of
exceptional ability and strength when reared in a supportive, nurturing and
encouraging environment,” Dr. Obradovic said.

She
and her colleagues, including University of British
Columbiahttp://images.intellitxt.com/ast/adTypes/mag-glass_10x10.gif
researcher Thomas Boyce, followed
338 kindergarten children in the United States to test the orchid hypothesis.

For
years, scientists who study the brain, genetics and child development have
reported that children who live in adverse environments are not equally at risk
of developing problems.

The
stress of having a mother who suffers from depression, for example, seemed to
be more damaging for some children than for others.

Sensitivity
to stress is one of the traits shown to make children particularly vulnerable.
But according to the orchid theory, advanced by Dr. Boyce and a number of other
researchers, sensitivity to stress might have an upside.

These
children might be more attuned to other elements in their environment,
including attention and nurturing. Perhaps they would thrive – do better than
average – in certain circumstances. This experiment, led by Dr. Obradovic, was
designed to test this idea.

The
children, age 5 and 6, were assessed for how they reacted to mildly stressful
tasks, including interviews with strangers and being asked to recall sequences
of numbers – and being corrected if they made mistakes.

Afterward,
the researchers measured their heart rates and levels of the stress hormone
cortisol in their saliva.

They
also assessed the difficulties each child faced at home by surveying their
parents about financial stress, parental overload, marital conflict and how
much anger, contempt and hostility was shown by family members.

In
a paper published today in the journal Child Development, they report that the
highly reactive children fared worse at school if they came from a home with a
lot of stress. But if their home environment was more stable, they did better
than their peers at school, both academically and socially.

Some
parents may already know if their child tends to be reactive.

“These
are the kids that if you approach them too quickly, or make too loud a noise in
their face, get fussy and irritated,” Dr. Obradovic said.

But
it is not black and white, she said, and children may react more to one kind of
stress than another. As well, some may be able to calm themselves quickly.

This
study focused on a trait rather than a specific gene. Dr. Boyce and his
colleagues are now studying how a child’s environment affects the way particular
genes function.

The
work focused on stress sensitivity, said Dr. Obradovic, but the orchid theory
also applies to genes associated with increased susceptibility to attention
deficit and hyperactivity disorder, anxiety or depression. The idea is the
same; with increased vulnerability comes increased potential.

“There
is a plasticity here. It really depends on environment. No one is walking
around with inherently vulnerable genes or an inherently vulnerable
physiology,” she said.

HOUSEHOLD
STRESS

Six
sources of family stress that researchers looked at in their study of children
who are more likely to falter in difficult circumstances but thrive in a more
stable environment.

Financial stress: Money problems, difficulty paying bills and how finances limited opportunities.

Parenting overload: Whether parents felt overwhelmed by their duties and juggling
conflicting obligations, and whether they had time to relax.

Marital conflict : How often parents openly argued, criticized each other in front of
their children and showed physical or verbal hostility.

Negative/anger expressiveness: Overt anger, contempt and hostility among
family members, as well as frequency of passive sulking, crying and disappointment.

Maternal depression: A 20-item questionnaire assessed whether a child’s mother was suffering
from depression.

Harsh and restrictive parenting: This was assessed on an 18-item scale.

FEATorchidkidSTORY

A new study says that there is a positive side to traits and genes associated with susceptibility to emo-tional problems and cognitive deficits.
Photo: file