Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Raising Orchid Children

I just finished reading a fantastic article in The Atlantic by David Dobbs entitled, "Orchid Children." The "orchid hypothesis" of child development, as Dobbs explains, is quite similar to my own hypothesis about postpartum mood disorders: "Genetics loads the gun; environment pulls the trigger." In other words, genes are responsible for our sensitivity to mood problems, but it's the particular ecosystem in which we live that determines if mood problems develop.

Let me try to explain this "orchid hypothesis" that Dobbs reported on in the article. We all know someone who survived some terrible childhood trauma. This person may have survived verbal, physical, and/or sexual abuse. These people should be complete emotional messes as adults. And yet, maybe with therapy, maybe without therapy, they are pretty well-functioning adults. There's a whole sub-genre of memoirs out there written by such people. ("Once in a House on Fire" by Andrea Ashworth is a fine and much-recommended example.) These people, according to the hypothesis, would be called dandelions. They flourish under all kinds or stresses and in adverse environments, much like the dandelions in lawns--chemically-treated and otherwise--everywhere.

And then you have the orchids. Orchids are much more sensitive to their enviroment. They are highly reactive to even seemingly small amounts of stress. In children, they may be quick to throw tantrums; cry easily; hit, kick, punch or bite their parents or caregivers. In adults, "orchid-ness" often manifests itself as anxiety or depression.

So then, the theory goes, there are 2 types of the same gene that determines whether you have a "dandelion" or "orchid" temperment. You may be thinking it's better to get the "dandelion" variation over the "orchid" form, but it's not quite so simple.

A well-tended "orchid" when it blooms, blooms magnificently. When "orchids" are raised in highly responsive, stable, and emotionally-attunded ecosystems (which includes every caregiver with whom the child has contact), these children channel their propensity for risk and excitement in, well, exciting ways. You may know some of these people, too. They take on interesting and creative projects. They maintain a network of fun, diverse friends. They may be empathic beyond the norm. They have that vision thing, seeing possibilities where most see nothing at all.

So, this hypothesis has got me excited for all kinds of reasons. Here are some of the possible implications I've been thinking about: What if the orchid hypothesis also applies to parents who suffer postpartum mood disorders? Does being an "orchid parent" mean that recovery from ppmds or baby blues makes one a more intuitive, sensitive parent in the long run? In raising "orchid children," how do we best help them succeed? In successfully raising an orchid, do "dandelion siblings" reap benefits, or does the dandelion-parent bond suffer?

In my coming posts, I hope to explore all these (and more) questions further. In the meantime, peace to all the dandelions and orchids out there.

1 comment:

Mr. T said...

Hi Shannon,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Keep the posts coming! I do read them now and then...

Justin