Some people experience terrible childhoods and yet flourish throughout life.
Other people grow up in loving homes but suffer from lifelong mental illness, even if their siblings do not.
Why is this?
The orchid child versus the dandelion child
This question was asked by W. Thomas Boyce professor emeritus of paediatrics and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco as he reflected on his own family. Particularly his sister who fought mental illness most of her short life, while he was “impervious.“
Boyce believes all children differ in their biological susceptibility to life experiences in a “for better and for worse” manner.
- Orchid children are particularly sensitive to both highly stressful and highly nurturing environments. Like orchids, such children bloom if lovingly cultivated, but wilt and wither if neglected.
- Dandelion children are adaptable and resilient. They don’t get easily stressed are like little dandelions, they’ll grow and thrive anywhere.
In describing brain development, Boyce comments,
” … who we are — orchids, dandelions, and everyone in between — is responsive to both the settings in which we grow and the genetic differences that delineate who we can become.”W. Thomas Boyce.
Boyce explains that the experience of children within a given family can actually have very different experiences. The differences include the birth order of the child, the sex and gender of the child, and their genes.
Boyce provides great advice and resources for those of us raising fragile orchids,
“The good news for parents who are struggling to manage and nurture a highly sensitive, orchid-like child is that they thrive on all the love, time and attention they consume. Though needful of abundant love and care, they are sentient, imaginative kids, who – with sufficient support – often ascend into adulthoods of special creativity and accomplishment.“
The importance of early childhood brain development
While writing The Women’s Brain Book I spent much of Chapter 2 exploring what can go wrong during childhood – from the effects of trauma to family stress to learning negative gender stereotypes. I worried that if readers had young children they were probably ready to drop the book and run off to bulk-buy cotton wool and bubble wrap.
Poulton is head of the Dunedin Study, a research programme that has closely tracked every aspect of the lives of 1037 people born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1972 and 1973. The Dunedin study has shown that early life experiences shape developing brain architecture and strongly affect whether children grow up to be healthy, productive members of society.
Studies are now showing ‘orchid’ and ‘dandelion’ genes linked to particular enzymes or brain chemical receptors, can trigger behavioural problems and mood disorders later in life. IF, and only if, combined with toxic stress in early childhood.
Toxic stress — stress that is extreme or long-lasting or occurs outside an environment of supportive, attached caregiver relationships — derails healthy brain development, with damaging effects on learning, behaviour, and physical and mental health across the lifespan. As Poulton noted,
“It’s possible we’ve underestimated the importance of childhood.”Professor Richie Poulton
Given what we know about normal and abnormal brain development, what experiences do infants and children (the dandelions and the orchids) need to thrive, not just survive? What can adults who raise children do to foster healthy, happy brains?
What do growing brains need to thrive?
1. Attachments and relationships.
Warm, predictable and loving relationships allow children to feel secure, safe and unstressed.
Infants and young children need ample opportunities to hear and use language: ‘serve-and-return’ interactions are crucial.
Sleep is vital for children’s emotional, physical and mental development.
Through play, babies and children develop cognitive skills, creativity and emotional regulation. They need ample opportunities to experiment and explore, including time outdoors in nature. Dr Goodwin highlights the modern-day need to counteract ‘screen time’ with ‘green time’.
5. Physical Movement.
Children need to master simple then complex motor skills in order to develop more sophisticated, higher-order thinking skills later on.
Quality nutrition is vital for optimal development. Children’s diets need to be rich in foods that contain essential fatty acids optimal for brain development.
7. Executive Function Skills.
Children need to master simple higher-order thinking skills such as impulse control and working memory.
“Given that we know experience accounts for about 70% of a child’s development.
It’s critical that we provide them with the right types of experiences.”
Poulton, Goodwin and I agree that childhood is a sacred time. It’s a unique period in the lifespan that needs to be treasured, nurtured and protected.
This is an excerpt from The Women’s Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness. Also published in the UK and Ireland as Demystifying the Female Brain. A neuroscientist explores health, hormones and happiness.
Edit to update: 26 August 2021.
About Dr Sarah
I’m an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, presenter of ABC Catalyst, director of The Neuroscience Academy, and author of The Women's Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness.
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