Parenting style, whether good or bad, has a bigger effect on some children than others. In 2005 Ellis and Boyce published a paper called “Biological Sensitivity to Context,” which looked at the susceptibility of children to their family environment. They borrowed a Swedish idiom to describe a child with a sensitive temperament: orkidebarn.
Orkidebarn means “orchid child,” and is in contrast to tomaskrosbarn, or “dandelion child.” Ellis and Boyce suggest that dandelion children seem to have the capacity to survive, or even thrive, in whatever circumstances they find themselves. They are psychologically resilient. Orchid children are the opposite and are highly sensitive to their environment, especially to the quality of parenting they receive. If they are neglected, orchid children will wither — but if they are nurtured, they not only survive but thrive. Ellis and Boyce suggest that an orchid child becomes “a flower of unusual delicacy and beauty.” This article launched a myriad of research into this area to see if these suggestions were correct.
Slagt et al (2015) conducted a meta-analysis of these studies and found those with a particular kind of highly emotional temperament are more likely to match the description of an “orchid child”. Slagt et al do not actually use the terms orchid or dandelion but the terms used in the original article sparked the 84 studies, involving thousands of children that were analysed by Slaft.
There are three main ways that child temperament could interact with parenting style and Slagt et al were particularly interested in finding out which was best supported by the data they analysed. Firstly, it is possible that some children are vulnerable to bad parenting (cold and authoritarian) but not affected by good parenting (warm and authoritative). Secondly, as suggested by the orchid concept, some children may be extra sensitive to a harsh upbringing and a positive upbringing. Finally, it is possible that some children may especially benefit from a positive upbringing, but who are not necessarily vulnerable to a negative upbringing.
Slagt found the data suggested those children with a certain temperament appear to be especially sensitive to both bad and good parenting. These children suffer more when things are harsh, but they thrive more than usual in a positive environment. They seemed to gain as much from a positive upbringing as they suffered from a bad one.
The orchid child generally shows more fear and irritability than other children and there was also some evidence that children with a more ‘difficult’ temperament were also more sensitive to good and bad parenting. The general message according to the researchers is that “the very quality that appears to be a frailty in [some] children may also be their strength, given a supportive parenting context”.