Orchid Child: Kids in Need of Hothouse Care

Orchid Child is a term used to describe a child who will do poorly or exceptionally well, depending on that child’s environment. As you might have guessed, the term brings to mind the orchid flower: a flower that requires special care, but under ideal circumstances, grows to become a thing of phenomenal beauty. The good people of Sweden can be credited for coming up with the concept and the term (in Swedish: orkidebarn).

Just as the orchid child requires sensitivity and careful tending to thrive, the dandelion child (in Swedish: makrosbarn) will be hale and hearty no matter what is going on around him or how you treat him. He just bounces back. But the orchid child? If you don’t give that child the equivalent of hothouse care, her health is going to suffer. In fact, her very psyche is fragile and at risk.

Orchid Children Can Be Gifted

On the other hand, give that orchid child the treatment she needs and deserves and you’re going to end up with something very special. Maybe even prize-winning. Natch?

The term “orchid child” popped up in an otherwise dry scientific paper published in 2005, called Biological Sensitivity to Context. The paper’s authors, Bruce J. Ellis and W. Thomas Boyce, both human development specialists, studied children’s vulnerability to their family environments. Ellis and Boyce borrowed the Swedish neologism for describing a brand new concept in genetics and in child development: the idea that the neglected orchid child will fast wither, but with proper care, will not only live, but flourish.

The authors, scientists to the bone, found a need to resort to poetry to describe what happens when an orchid child gets what she needs, remarking that in such a case, the orchid child turns into “a flower of unusual delicacy and beauty.”

Orchid, orchid child

Orchid Child As New Idea

The work of Ellis and Boyce created a buzz within the small scientific circle of scientists who deal with both genetics and child development. Everyone knew about the resilient child and everyone knew that some kids are more vulnerable to stressful family situations. But here was something novel: the idea that the extra-sensitive child was not only vulnerable to stress, but capable of thriving under the right conditions. In fact, the orchid child, given the proper environment, can not only be hale and healthy, but develop exceptional gifts.

Ellis and Boyce had given birth to a new concept: the concept of the orchid child. Now that the idea had been invented and accepted, scientists had to figure out whether the orchid child was born that way: with a double-edged sword of sensitivity. Was this a genetic thing?

And so a search was born that continues to this day. Was there a gene or genes that created the orchid child? It seems so.

Orchid Child And Genes

Researchers began to look at genes linked to specific enzymes and brain chemical receptors, and what happens if you throw family chaos or abuse into the brew. The scientists saw that what you get is a whole bunch of mood disorders and behavioral issues.  This is interesting because it means there may be genes that are associated with unpleasant lives.

This led one behavioral geneticist, Danielle M. Dick, to look at a gene known as CHRM2. Scientists have already found that many alcoholics possess this gene and they knew that alcoholism is part of a group of other behaviors including childhood conduct disorders and antisocial behavior. Not only that, but CHRM2 includes a chemical receptor that is linked to all sorts of brain functions like, for instance, learning and memory. Dick, along with 13 other researchers took DNA samples from 400 children already taking part in a larger study on child development.

Now these children had been studied since they were in kindergarten. But Dick and her colleagues came into the picture when the children were already 17 years old. The scientists looked at the CHRM2 gene in these children and also looked at the data on the children’s behavior. They looked to see who was delinquent, aggressive, involved in substance abuse, and so on. Then they talked to the kids and their parents.


CHRM2 Gene Variation

The scientists asked questions like: How much do your parents know about how you’re spending your free time? Do they know who your friends are? What do you buy with your pocket money?

From the answers, the scientists gradually developed a picture that showed some children were being carefully nurtured by their parents, while others were neglected. What they found was the orchid child or the child who had certain variations in their CHRM2 genes and had been either nurtured or neglected with predictable results.

Those orchid children who had caring, involved parents thrived. Those children whose parents had abused or neglected them typically became juvenile delinquents capable of the worst sorts of behavior and aggression. Another way of saying this is that kids at high risk for developing bad behaviors don’t have to fight so hard to stay normal, nice, and sane when raised in healthy, happy homes.

Orchid Children And Delinquency

Are you thinking you knew that all along? Don’t be so sure. As you might have suspected, the kids who became delinquents due to parental neglect or abuse mostly came from low-income neighborhoods.dandelion child, orchid child, makrosbarn, orkidbarn

But it’s equally true that if you put a dandelion child in this very same environment, he’s going to be just fine. The dandelion child is not susceptible to neglect, abuse, or poverty. He bounces back no matter what. And he doesn’t have that CHRM2 gene that makes him vulnerable to stress.

What are we supposed to learn from this study? Even a sensitive orchid child can do well–even better than the dandelion child–when given the support she needs at home. That’s even if she doesn’t live in the best neighborhood.

But a sensitive child growing up in a chaotic home is going to flounder.

And that’s a darned shame.

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.

Reader Interactions


  1. Alvin Wilson says

    “The dandelion child is not susceptible to neglect, abuse, or poverty. He bounces back no matter what. And he doesn’t have that CHRM2 gene that makes him vulnerable to stress.

    What are we supposed to learn from this study? Even a sensitive orchid child can do well–even better than the dandelion child–when given the support she needs at home. That’s even if she doesn’t live in the best neighborhood.

    But a sensitive child growing up in a chaotic home is going to flounder.

    And that’s a darned shame.”

    This comes across as condoning abusing or neglecting a “dandelion child” because they aren’t worthwhile or deserving of good parenting.

    • Varda Epstein says

      I fail to see how. But you’re entitled to your (erroneous) opinion.

      • Alvin Wilson says

        “But it’s equally true that if you put a dandelion child in this very same environment, he’s going to be just fine. The dandelion child is not susceptible to neglect, abuse, or poverty. He bounces back no matter what. And he doesn’t have that CHRM2 gene that makes him vulnerable to stress.”

        “I worry about how the orchid and dandelion theory might be employed. The danger of putting people into categories is that we unwittingly respond not to the person, but to their label.”

        It’s a very handy excuse to set up a two-tier system where the less sensitive (read: not-special) child can be neglected and overlooked. After all, it doesn’t matter how they’re treated. They’ll be fine. They simply don’t matter. Think of all the money society can save by NOT bothering to educate or invest in the approximately 80% of the children who aren’t likely to be particularly gifted anyway.

        • Varda Epstein says

          If someone were to think of doing so, they might use what I wrote as an excuse, but that would be twisting my meaning completely. I never thought that or condoned it, and don’t do so now.

  2. Alvin Wilson says

    “Do you think orchid children are particularly gifted, in ways that dandelions may not be?

    Dr. Boyce: I think they are. They’re very contemplative and observant; it goes with their openness to the world. They’re just more sensitive to the things that are going on. And they learn from those things in ways that allow them to accumulate great intelligence and insight into the way the world works.”

    Also Dr. Boyce, “If orchids get the right nurturing, sufficient soothing and opportunities for self-expression – in other words, an environment that allows their sensitivities to work for them – they come out on top, higher than the dandelions.”

    “n this book, paediatric health expert W Thomas Boyce identifies two personality types. He argues that four fifths of children appear to be “dandelions”, who can thrive in most environments. The remaining fifth are “orchids”, who are more exquisite and unusual and have a higher potential than dandelions – but for this to be realised they require a particular environment and careful gardening.”

    So Dr. Boyce’s research underscores that devoting time, money and education on “dandelions” is wasting precious limited resources. The 20% or so who have the higher potential are where we should be focusing our efforts.

    Send the dandelions to trade schools or apprentice them between 10 and 12. We will always need someone to mind the infirm, clean our homes, dump our trash, ensure that we have reliable electricity and working plumbing, but beyond that they don’t have much to offer beyond solid, stolid stability and their lack of imagination. They’re the support staff and as such, they only need minimal training and to be able to repeat their tasks with minimal explanations or complaints.

    • Varda Epstein says

      That is your interpretation. But Boyce said nothing about how to allocate existing resources in this little bit you’ve quoted. He only talked about giving orchids the RIGHT resources, not more of them.

  3. Alvin Wilson says

    “Foreword by T. Berry Brazelton

    This is an impressive and important book—a collection of ideas and research—that reveals the profound prenatal and perinatal factors that affect an infant’s and child’s later development. Dr. Boyce identifies a special group of children—“orchids”—who are outliers among groups of more typically developing children, or “dandelions.” Orchid children are uniquely fragile, needing special nurturing to achieve their best. Dandelions are more rugged and likely to overcome any difficulty, but are often average or ordinary in outcomes.”

    As Dr. Boyce allowed this to be part of his book, so he too must view orchids as “special” and dandelions as “average or ordinary”. Why bother with them? What do they have to offer besides muscle? Their best isn’t anything special or worth the resources they consume in order to produce mediocrity. They are weeds.

    • Varda Epstein says

      Again, this is your interpretation. We are talking about different nurturing, not more for one group, and less for the others. And even if we were, maybe that is because one group requires more than others. I see nothing wrong with that. It isn’t about being cost effective, it’s about seeing needs and responding to them as required.

  4. Alvin says

    Dr. J. Belsky discussed it.

    “State, local and federal governments, as well as parents and schools, spend a great deal of money trying to help kids succeed and keep them out of trouble. Research should help us understand why some children come out of development programs with enhanced capabilities and fewer behavioral problems, while others don’t seem to be affected very much — or at all. Eventually, we may be able to identify the children who will benefit the most, and consider investing extra resources in them.”

    “Those who value equity over efficacy will object to the notion of treating children differently because of their genes. But if we get to the point where we can identify those more and less likely to benefit from a costly intervention with reasonable confidence, why shouldn’t we do this? What is ethical, after all, about providing services to individuals for whom we believe they will not prove effective, especially when spending taxpayers’ money?

    One might even imagine a day when we could genotype all the children in an elementary school to ensure that those who could most benefit from help got the best teachers. Not only because they would improve the most, but also because they would suffer the most from lower quality instruction. The less susceptible — and more resilient — children are more likely to do O.K. no matter what. After six or seven years, this approach could substantially enhance student achievement and well-being.”

    • Varda Epstein says

      DIFFERENT, not more/not less. Different.
      But again, even if we were giving more to one group because that group NEEDS more, I see nothing wrong with that.
      Responding to needs is important. Different children have different requirements.
      It’s not about cost and taxpayers. It’s about the correct way to allocate resources, according to individual need.

      • Alvin says

        “One might even imagine a day when we could genotype all the children in an elementary school to ensure that those who could most benefit from help got the BEST teachers. Not only because they would IMPROVE THE MOST, but also because they would suffer the most from lower quality instruction.”

        Why bother to educate the dandelion children at all when it doesn’t matter how good, bad or indifferent the instruction? They aren’t worth the TIME or the MONEY.

        They are WEEDS and we need to cull them!

        • Varda Epstein says

          Where did it say we need to “cull them?”
          Nowhere. That is you tacking things on to the actual meaning which is: weeds thrive under any conditions.

          • Alvin says

            Right – and who in their right mind invests in WEEDS? Particularly with the BEST teachers?

            No one. So logically it stands that as they are not necessary, society shouldn’t invest in them. It doesn’t matter how they are raised, they are never going to amount to much. So why bother? What is the point? How many people do we really need to dump trash, fix our plumbing, feed the infirm and fix our power lines? And how much education do they really need to do so?

          • Varda Epstein says

            You’ve got it wrong. No one said these are the workmen, the manual laborers who will never amount to much. That’s just what you’ve decided to think. I’m done arguing with you. Seriously. No one thinks this. Only you.

  5. Alvin says

    Various peer-reviewed studies clearly demonstrate that negative and uncompassionate home and school environments hurt the social-emotional and intellectual development of orchid children but have minimal to no effect on dandelions. However, the studies also show an amazing effect that compassionate and positive homes and schools have on orchids: while both orchids and dandelions succeed in this environment, the orchids thrive to such an extent that they surpass the dandelion children in social-emotional and intellectual learning.

    “…there is mounting evidence of the implications for understanding child development as well as targeting interventions at those children most likely to benefit.”

    Targeting interventions means you do not throw good money after bad on children who are too thick and insensitive to be worth the effort.

    Investing in and trying to educate “dandelion” children is pouring money down a rat hole. They are throwaways.

    • Varda Epstein says

      No. They aren’t throwaways. They aren’t seen as dispensable or unimportant. The point is they THRIVE no matter what you do. They thrive. And that is what you don’t seem to want to take away from this, for some reason. You’ve chosen not to see the point. I don’t know why. But you haven’t brought a single convincing point in all this pointless arguing. It’s just your interpretation of what other people mean, laid over what they actually said and meant.

      Please, this is really pointless. I understand what you think it means. Can’t we just stipulate that I registered your opinion of what it means and I disagree?

  6. Dagian says

    Alvin should read the link:


    But what exactly is more plastic and reactive in orchids? Is this the same plasticity we talk of when we talk about learning and the mastery of skills and expertise?

    Well — no. [b]One is temperamental plasticity; the other is cognitive plasticity.[/b] There is surely some overlap. But at least by the terms of this orchid or sensitivity hypothesis, the genetic underpinnings and dynamics of temperamental plasticity are not those of cognitive plasticity. Having the more plastic “S/S” form of the serotonin transporter gene, for instance, will tie your vulnerability to depression more closely to your experience, but it will not make you either smarter or duller, or faster or slower to learn — especially when the learning involved is primarily cognitive or skill-based, such as learning catalysts, chess, HTML coding, or a good topsin backhand.

    [b]So I am not suggesting — and I don’t believe those working up this hypothesis suggest — that those with so-called dandelion genes are destined to a hearty mediocrity. [/b]Rather, the hypothesis asserts that, as with orchids, a dandelion’s ultimate endpoint and accomplishments will be determined by a complex mixture of temperament and cognitive and other skills — but the dandelion’s path to wherever will likely be bit steadier and less likely pushed up or down by great or horrible fortune.

  7. Checkers says

    I think that it’s ridiculous, irresponsible and potentially dangerous for Boyce to conclude that there are children who can “thrive” in environments that are characterized by turbulence and abuse. These children might achieve outward landmarks of success and appear completely put together to the outside world, but the inability to show weakness/fear/sadness is a coping mechanism. People who are deeply wounded, who are depressed or anxious and suffering, frequently appear to be successful and happy. It’s why mental illness is colloquially termed “invisible illness”.

    I also think this rhetoric is dangerous because it imposes certain characteristics on children who have no control over what their home life is like. In fact, there seems to be a decent amount of research demonstrating that attachment to caregivers affects brain chemistry as early as infancy; Boyce’s research seems to take place in children who can talk or complete small puzzles. I think it’s easy for an abusive or neglectful parent, to completely invalidate their child’s reactions to abuse with this theory. “Well, I treat him just fine, but he’s an orchid so he’s overly sensitive,” etc.

    Ultimately, I think I’m trying to say this: claiming that a child is born with certain physiologic or psychologic characteristics opens a path for abusers to absolve themselves of responsibility, and humanity is much more complexity than a dichotomy (splitting, anyone?) about how much abuse a child can be “expected” to take.

    • Varda Epstein says

      I hear your point, and yet we do see the phenomenon in which some people overcome adversity and others don’t. The theory helps us understand why that is. It’s just a theory. If people misuse this info, that’s not on those who did the research.

  8. Kim says

    I am horrified beyond words that Dr. Boyce wrote and apparently believes this to be true. Not only that, he is completely overlooking that abuse and trauma leaves traces behind. It can be hypervigilance, it can be a parentified child who later melts down spectacularly as an adult – there is NO way to dismiss the effects of trauma on any child. Whether a weedy dandelion or a treasured valuable orchid.

    “Developmental science has convincingly shown that one of the origins of such differences is children’s early experiences of psychological trauma and adversity. Such experience can impede normal brain development, create obstacles to effective learning, and impair mental and physical health during childhood and over the remaining life course. This is why children growing up in poverty, children who are mistreated by their parents or others, and children exposed to violence within the family or community are all at risk for compromised development, educational achievement, and mental or physical health.

    But all children are not equally susceptible to these effects. While some are powerfully affected by trauma, others are able to effectively weather adverse experiences, sustaining few, if any, developmental or health consequences. People tend to view these differences in susceptibility as attributable to an inherent vulnerability or resilience, imagining that some small number of resilient or “unbreakable” children have a special capacity to thrive, even in the face of severe adversity. Our research suggests instead that such variance is attributable not to innate traits but to differences in children’s relative biological susceptibility to the social contexts in which they live and grow, both the negative and the positive.

    A majority of children show a kind of biological indifference to experiences of adversity, with stress response circuits in their brains that are minimally reactive to such events. Like dandelions that thrive in almost any environment, such children are mostly unperturbed by the stressors and traumas they confront.”

    What a pompous jerk.

  9. Oscar says

    “The dandelion child is not susceptible to neglect, abuse, or poverty. He bounces back no matter what.”

    What the? Not susceptible to neglect, abuse or poverty? This is an utter falsehood. There is NO acceptable limit and to suggest otherwise is irresponsible at best. This is like saying the more scars someone has, the better – scar tissue is tougher than intact skin. Completely disregarding the fact that there was an injury that led to the scarring.

    I suspect they disregarded their legal obligation to report abuse or neglect as it would interfere with their conclusions that it does no harm to dandelions.

    • Varda Epstein says

      No one suggested there was an acceptable level of child neglect, abuse, or poverty. What the theory states is that these issues don’t hold back the dandelion child, because the dandelion child is resilient in the face of even adversity. It true, this would be a wonderful quality to have. I wonder that anyone finds something objectionable in this concept.

  10. Teresa says

    I see a fair few comments suggesting that dandelions are understood to be disposable, but if you have any experience with so called gifted children you’ll find that often it is them/the orchids who are peft behind: the research I see cited heee merely seems to say “Look, yoy have a hard task and you can’t mess up with your orchid but if you put effort in you might really benefitting your kids.” which is the opposite of what parents of gifted/fussy/spirited children are barraged with day in amd day out.

    Those with children who are more sensitive to light, who struggle more with sleep and social interactions are continuously told that they did something wrong because their (dandelion?) kids rarely struggled, with a bit pf prodding they sleep considerable warlier, they don’t need as much reassurance and care and if you observe that you *need* to be more careful you’re just helicoptering and you’re too soft.

    If anything, it’s nice for once to have someone not just deciding what’s best for children that might just have additional needs. For all this talk of disposability the ones that are often failed are most certainly not the ones who are in the average.