Some children are extra sensitive to parenting style, bad and good

By Christian Jarrett

Just over ten years ago, a fascinating journal article argued that some children are like orchids – they don’t just wither in response to a harsh upbringing, they also flourish in a positive environment, unlike their “dandelion” peers who are less affected either way. Since then, research into this concept has exploded. A new meta-analysis in Psychological Bulletin usefully gathers all that we know so far about one key aspect of this – the associations between children’s temperament (the forerunner to adult personality) and the way they respond to different parenting styles. The results suggest that those with a particular kind of highly emotional temperament are more likely to match the description of an orchid child*.

Meike Slagt and her colleagues surveyed all the relevant research published prior to 2015 into the interactions between children’s temperament, parenting styles and various developmental outcomes, from behavioral problems to school performance. They found 84 relevant studies – half of them published since 2010 – involving tens of thousands of children.

In theory, there are three main ways that child temperament could interact with parenting style, and the researchers were particularly concerned with finding out which was best supported by the available data.

It’s possible that some children are especially vulnerable to a harsh upbringing (cold and authoritarian), but no more or less affected by a positive upbringing (warm and authoritative). Alternatively, in line with the orchid concept, some children could be extra sensitive to bad and good parenting. Finally, it may be that there are some children with a particular temperament who especially benefit from a positive upbringing, but who are no more or less vulnerable to a negative upbringing.

In fact, the data supported the orchid concept. Some children with a certain temperament seem to be especially sensitive to both bad and good parenting, suffering more when things are harsh, but also thriving more than usual in a positive environment. These children seemed to gain as much from a positive upbringing as they suffered from a bad one.

What kind of temperament do these children have? Child temperament is usually rated according to negative emotionality (similar to adult neuroticism, for example showing more fear and irritability), surgency (a little like adult extraversion – imagine an outgoing child who enjoys trying out new activities), and effortful control (similar to adult conscientiousness).

The meta-analysis found that children with high negative emotionality, though only when measured in infancy, not later in childhood, were especially likely to be more sensitive to parenting style, good or bad. There was also some evidence that children with a generally more “difficult” temperament (based on negative emotionality and certain aspects of surgency and effortful control), whether measured in infancy or later childhood, were also more sensitive to good and bad parenting.

The intriguing take-home 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”.

This meta-analysis provides a useful overview, including raising issues with the current evidence. For instance, for obvious ethical reasons, we don’t have evidence showing the same child suffering more in a harsh environment, but thriving especially well in a positive one, which would provide more compelling evidence for the orchid concept (than what we have now – which is contrasts of the experiences of different emotionally sensitive children in different environments). Perhaps carefully designed “micro-interventions” could plug this gap, by testing the effects of brief positive and negative experiences on the same children.

Also, and as the researchers explain, there is much more we don’t yet know. For example, is the trait of negative emotionality a cause or a consequence (or just a marker) of sensitivity to parenting? Meanwhile, other research has documented children with certain genetic variants who are more likely to show signs of sensitivity to parenting, but it’s not clear how this fits with the temperament research. In fact, some of the genetic variants linked with greater sensitivity are also associated with less negative emotionality. It’s going to take a good deal more clever research to disentangle the complex dynamics between children’s genes, temperament and sensitivity.

Differences in sensitivity to parenting depending on child temperament: A meta-analysis.

*Note, the authors of the meta-analysis do not use the orchid/dandelion terminology.

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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