Major support for MindShift comes from
Landmark College
upper waypoint

Are Some Children Really More Sensitive? Research Says Yes, But It Varies by Situation

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

A child with two French braids and an adult woman wearing a patterned hijab face each other with smiles. The woman holds the child's face in her hands.
 (arto_canon/iStock)

Sensitive children often get a bad rap. They can be labeled as “difficult,” “dramatic” or “spoiled,” and often parents are blamed for coddling or over-accommodating them. Yet, research increasingly suggests that children show real differences in sensitivity and respond to parenting differently as a result. In other words, some children really are more sensitive than other children and it isn’t just an excuse that parents use for “misbehavior.”

One way that researchers have conceptualized sensitive children is the Orchid-Dandelion metaphor. According to this metaphor, some children are orchids, meaning they thrive only under ideal conditions and are very sensitive to changes in their environment. Orchid children are contrasted with dandelion children, meaning children that can flourish in any environment and who are not very sensitive to environmental changes. According to this study, about 31% of people are orchids and 29% are dandelions. Researchers also found that about 40% of people are tulips, meaning they show a level of sensitivity somewhere in between dandelions and orchids (that is, they don’t necessarily need ideal conditions like orchids but can’t flourish in any condition like dandelions). 

Some researchers argue that the Orchid-Dandelion metaphor is an oversimplification and that sensitivity occurs on a spectrum. Researchers also argue that most children are not simply sensitive across the board but show a unique profile of sensitivities. For example, your child may be very sensitive to changes in their sleep but not very sensitive to changes in their routine, or they may be the pickiest eater but can jump into any new situation without hesitating. Although the Orchid-Dandelion metaphor may be an oversimplification, it does help us to understand that sensitivity is all about how children respond to their environment. Being sensitive doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with the child themselves. Rather, it means that we might have to alter the environment in order to optimally meet their needs.

Sensitivity in children is also discussed in the framework of being a “highly sensitive person” (HSP). This term was coined by psychologist Elaine Aron in 1997 in her book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. Being a highly sensitive person is not an official diagnosis or mental condition, but research finds that it is a personality difference characterized by being more hesitant in new situations and showing more sensitivity in sensory input (such as being more reactive to pain, noise or lack of sleep). Research also finds real neurobiological differences in how highly sensitive individuals respond to their environment.

A recent study provides some new insights into sensitivity in children and what we can do as parents. This new study looked at how a child’s sensitivity impacts their development later in life and found some interesting results. This study looked at how sensitive children were to the following influences at age 3: 

Sponsored

1. Parent praise

2. Parent stress

3. Child mood

4. Child sleep

Any parent of a toddler (especially any parent of a sensitive toddler) will get a kick out of this — the researchers measured sensitivity of children during toothbrushing. Parents submitted videos of their children during toothbrushing for two weeks and kept diaries of their children’s moods and sleep. An interesting aside is that this research group found in a previous study that children brushed their teeth for longer when their parents used more praise and less direct instruction and on days when they were in a better mood. 

When the children were 5 to 7 years old, researchers asked parents to report on the child’s problems, including both behavioral and mental health problems. 

The researchers found the following: 

1. Some children are more sensitive to praise from their parents and this type of sensitivity is linked with fewer problems later in life: Children who were more sensitive to their parents’ praise at age 3 showed fewer behavior problems and fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety at age 5 to 7. 

2. Some children are more sensitive to changes in their own mood and this type of sensitivity is linked with more problems later in life: Children whose behavior was more impacted by their own mood at age 3 showed more symptoms of depression and anxiety at age 5 to 7. 

3. Praise from parents regardless of child sensitivity is linked with fewer behavior problems: When parents praised their children more frequently and more consistently at age 3, their children show fewer behavior problems at age 5 to 7. 

4. Sensitivity to mood and parent stress are related: Children who were more sensitive to changes in their own mood were also more sensitive to changes in their parent’s stress. However, sensitivity to parent stress was not related to problems later in life. 

Overall translation

If you have a more sensitive child, you can rest assured that it isn’t all in your head and it isn’t your fault. We need more research on this topic, but the research we have suggests some ways that parents can think about sensitive children and support these children to the best of their ability. So how might this research influence your parenting? 

1. Remember that sensitivity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The children who were more sensitive to praise in the study described above showed fewer problems later in life. We need more research on this topic but it is possible that sensitive children may have the advantage of being more sensitive to some positive influences as well. Make sure you notice some of the positive impacts of your child’s sensitive nature rather than only focusing on the negative impacts. 

2. Accept that some children are just more sensitive, but sensitivity may be more complicated than you think. This study, along with previous research, suggests that children may be differently sensitive to different influences. In other words, you shouldn’t assume that your child (or any child) is generally “sensitive” but rather it might be more helpful to think about the specific situations that trigger sensitivity. For example, your child may be more sensitive to influences at home than at school. 

3. Teach new skills to children who are sensitive to changes in their own mood. The study described above found that the children who were less sensitive to changes in their own mood showed less behavior problems later in childhood. We can support these more sensitive children by teaching them coping skills so behavior doesn’t have to always be dictated by their mood. This does not mean that you are teaching your child not to experience the emotion — only that emotions don’t always have to change their behavior. This is often the goal of therapy for both adults and children. Coping skills could include deep breathing, taking a break and self-talk, such as telling themselves, “Even though I am nervous, I can still do it!”

4. Know your child and provide extra support to them in the areas that they are more sensitive. Think about your own child. When do they show orchid, dandelion and tulip behavior? Sensitivity in children is all about how children respond to their environment. So think about how you can change the environment to help them. For example, if you have a child that is very sensitive to changes in plans, you can prepare them for the possibility of any changes or help them to learn coping strategies to handle these changes. 

5. Regardless of sensitivity, praise your child frequently and consistently. Previous research finds many benefits of praise. The study described above adds to this by suggesting that, if your child seems to respond well to praise, it is even more important to praise them frequently and consistently. This study did not look at the type of praise but previous research shows that parents should praise based on effort and hard work rather than characteristics of the child, such as, “You did a great job listening to me” vs. “You are a good listener.”

Sponsored

Cara Goodwin, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, a mother of four and the founder of Parenting Translator, a nonprofit newsletter that turns scientific research into information that is accurate, relevant and useful for parents.

lower waypoint
next waypoint