Tulip, Orchid and Dandelion Theory: Kids and Sensitivity

Get details on the tulip, orchid and dandelion theory, plus learn how to create the best environment for your child to grow.

In the earliest moments of life, some children struggle to sleep while others dream with ease. As those same kids get older, some will cry when you leave them at daycare and others will walk in without turning around to say goodbye.

As a parent, you might wonder why one child struggles while another seems unfazed. That’s where the tulip, orchid and dandelion theory comes in. This research looks at how genetics play a role in your kid’s sensitivity level, and how the environment impacts their overall development.

“It’s the nature vs. nurture, and what I’m seeing in this particular theory is it’s not the ‘either or,’ it’s really the ‘and,'” says Judith Malinowski, a clinical psychologist at St. John Providence Ascension Eastwood Clinics in Novi.

So where does your child fall on this sensitivity scale, and how can you help them grow into emotionally stable adults? Malinowski offers advice.

Tulip, orchid and dandelion theory

Researchers first introduced orchid and dandelion theory in 2005. It showcased how genetics play a role in a child’s sensitivity and how environment determines whether or not that child will thrive.

However, researchers recently identified a third category on the sensitivity scale, which falls between orchid and dandelion — known as tulip. To discover it, the researchers looked at environmental sensitivity in kids ages 10-19 by creating a 12-point scale, which included the following statements:

  • I find it unpleasant to have a lot going on at once.
  • Some music can make me really happy.
  • I love nice tastes.
  • Loud noises make me feel uncomfortable.
  • I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once.
  • I notice it when small things have changed in my environment.
  • I get nervous when I have to do a lot in little time.
  • I love nice smells.
  • I don’t like watching TV programs that have a lot of violence in them.
  • I don’t like loud noises.
  • I don’t like it when things change in my life.
  • When someone observes me, I get nervous. This makes me perform worse than normal.

Kids rated these statements on a scale of one (not at all) to seven (extremely), which showed how sensitive kids are to their environment.

From here, they were able to identify three groups: orchids – who are highly sensitive; dandelions — who are less sensitive; and tulips — who fall in between high and low sensitivity.

Nurturing your child

No matter where your child falls on the sensitivity spectrum, a healthy environment will help him or her thrive, Malinowski says.

Dandelion kids, Malinowski says, aren’t as demanding, are likely to be better sleepers and might not appear to need as much from parents.

“Dandelions are not going to necessarily present as needing a lot of extra attention and nurturing,” she says, but these kids will thrive even more if you stimulate their minds through play, include them in outings and more.

One thing to remember when it comes to raising a dandelion child: You might not always get what you give. “A lot of times that reciprocity of love and affection that we think we’re supposed to be getting from our children isn’t always there,” she says. But don’t take it personally.

For the orchid child, providing a nurturing environment is key to ensuring he or she thrives. “If these children are in a highly dysfunctional environment, they run a high risk of depression, anxiety and substance abuse,” Malinowski says.

Since orchid kids are sensitive to their surroundings, Malinowski says to pay close attention during big changes, including moving to a new neighborhood or going to daycare for the first time. Keep an eye on their moods, too. If you notice they are struggling, she says, adjust the home environment.

Since tulip kids fall in the middle, parents will get a feel for what they need as time goes on. For all kids, Malinowki says, parents should “learn about what’s expected in child development.” That way you can understand if a behavior is a normal developmental thing or a sign of something more.

Provide consistency for children. Make sure they are eating healthy foods. Make sure there is limited TV. “Sit down and play blocks with them,” color and more, she says.

While these things are important for all kids, Malinowki adds, you might have to do more for your sensitive orchid child.

And remember yourself while you’re taking care of your little ones, she says. “The No. 1 thing you need to do is remember to take care of yourself,” so you have the energy to provide a nurturing environment for your kids to grow.

This post was originally published in 2018 and is updated regularly. 

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