The highly sensitive child, if raised in a positive atmosphere, grows into an adult who, according to researcher Dr. Elaine Aron, may be “happier, healthier, and more socially skilled” than others. Like orchids, they flourish when given good care.
In this article: some, not all, orchid children are HSPs, putting sensitivity into perspective, and an important tip for parenting the orchid child.
The orchid-dandelion hypothesis is very good news for the highly sensitive person (HSP). It recognizes that an inborn trait can be not just detrimental in negative circumstances, but helpful in positive ones. In the past, researchers only noticed negative effects, and put HSPs into a category that was not flattering and not all that helpful.
With that perspective, being highly sensitive meant being less resilient when mistreated or facing adversity. It always seemed to me that the problem was the mistreatment, rather than the HSP’s being first to show the effects. But to be fair, adversity may not be within our control or our parents’ control, things like illness, death of a parent, job loss, or poverty.
There are about a dozen gene variants being studied as orchid genes that have an upside as well as a downside. So far only one–5-HTTLPR–seems to be strongly connected to being an HSP. It affects the level of serotonin. Other genes like GCH1 may affect neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, but have yet to come under the orchid umbrella.
You may be hearing more of the orchid genes, so let’s take a quick look without getting too technical.
Variants of the dopamine-related genes DR-D4 and DR-D7 function as orchid genes. In a good environment those who experience the upside of a particular gene variant at that location are more helpful, cooperative, and likely to share. As adults, they tend to be law-abiding, work for the good of the community, to donate to charity, and to volunteer. That sounds similar to HSP behavior.
The downside, in an adverse environment, may mean these children have attention, social, conduct or school problems. They are more distractible and tend toward risky behaviors. These characteristics are less likely to be found in the highly sensitive person.
A variant of the CHRM2 gene predicts cognitive abilities in some studies and depression in others. It appears to interact with parental negligence to produce an increased tendency to aggression, delinquency, and antisocial behaviors. It’s considered an orchid gene but doesn’t seem related to being an HSP.
Individuals with an MAOA variant, when abused as children, have an increased risk of antisocial behavior. They are sensitive to the context, but this does not seem to be an HSP-related variant.
So when you see the term orchid, it does not necessarily refer to you as an HSP. Orchid does not automatically mean being high in sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS). It means some form of genetically-based heightened sensitivity to context.
Limits to the orchid-dandelion metaphor
The implication is that orchids need special care to blossom. But orchids are not, by definition, hothouse plants. They are tropical plants, moved out of their home range. They do well enough in their natural environment.
Dandelion too can be an insulting label when it implies that the dandelion’s chief virtues are being stolid, boring, resilient, but not beautiful or appreciated.
Whatever you think of the plant species, many individual human dandelions (non-HSPs) are not only resilient but also varied in their skills and talents. They are warm, wonderful people, and assets to their communities and families.
Within every pair of individuals, one will be taller, one more subject to head colds, one more able to carry a tune. One can be only slightly sensitive and still be the more sensitive of the pair. The contrast between two people may spotlight a small difference and make it seem larger and more significant than it is.
Again, him-versus-her or me-versus-you is not a winning strategy.
Sensitivity is only a genetically-based tendency. We can choose our behavior. It may be affected by our inborn inclinations. Our choices and actions are also based on the requirements of the situation and our learning since the day we were born.
If an HSP is ill, it does not necessarily mean it is an HSP illness, caused by greater sensitivity to context. He or she may be an HSP and yet have an unrelated disease. To blame every illness on supposedly being “thin-skinned” is unfair and unwise. And, it's irresponsible if it leads to delaying effective treatment.
This trait functions as one among many, many others. The genes believed related to sensory-processing sensitivity are only a handful of the 22,000 genes that comprise the human genome.
There are few studies of how gene effects combine. In some cases they may add to the upside or downside expression of a particular variant. In others they may multiply an effect, or have no effect on each other at all.
Parenting according to the orchid-dandelion hypothesis
David Dobbs, author of an article titled the Science of Success describing orchid children, including HSPs, commented that
…if you’ve guarded against the most harsh experiences that can affect a child, it probably makes more sense to focus on providing lots of small, positive things than on being hyper-vigilant about protecting the child from every bump, insult, or troubling challenge.
And anxious hyper-vigilance sends a message that the world is perhaps too dangerous to handle. Small expressions of support and confidence and reassurance send the message that though the world can bring trouble, we’re almost always up for it, and will recover from all but—and sometimes even those too—the most serious setbacks or injuries or insults.