Vulnerability to behavior 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 behavior 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 Obradović 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. Obradović said.
She and her colleagues, including University of British Columbia 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. Obradović, 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. Obradović 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. Obradović, 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.
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.