Are You Parenting a Dandelion, a Tulip or an Orchid? Tips to Help Each Type of Child Thrive

If you asked a bunch of parents to describe the essence of their children, they might not immediately pick floral metaphors. Then again, those little suckers do love sunshine, earthworms and somehow manage to always smell sweet, so we get the connection.

Anyway, it turns out flowers are a very handy way to categorize the range of kids’ emotional temperaments, according to pediatrician Dr. W. Thomas Boyce in his groundbreaking book, The Orchid and The Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive. Simply put, sensitive kids are orchids, unflappable kids are dandelions and tulips fall somewhere in between. Here’s how to recognize which type is growing in your home, and tips to cultivate the best possible environment for your little sprout.

orchid children

Orchid Children

Temperament: Orchid children are known to have “high emotional reactivity,” writes school psychologist Dr. Jessica Koehler. Their fight-or-flight instinct is easily triggered—but so is their capacity for joy. These kids tend to be super sensitive, hyper-vigilant, anxious and “fragile.” Their reactions to mundane events—or even sad movie moments—can seem off-the-charts extreme. Little deals feel like big deals to orchids: Orchids are “exquisitely sensitive to their environments, especially vulnerable under conditions of adversity but unusually vital, creative, and successful within supportive environments.” Feeling everything so deeply can be both a blessing and a curse. And it is not all that unusual. Experts suggest up to 20 percent of kids are orchids.

Tips: Not surprisingly, highly sensitive orchid children require careful tending in order to bloom. But under the right conditions, they grow up to be exceptionally beautiful. Their creativity, empathy and sensitivity are gifts, not liabilities. Experts advise accepting your orchid child for who he is and making sure he knows you do. Don’t criticize his orchid ways or try to change him. Embrace the upsides of life in the hothouse: You will never be bored! Writes developmental psychologist Dr. Dona Matthews: “Orchid children do worse than others in bad environments, and do better than others—across a variety of cognitive, academic, and health measures—in optimal environments. If you’re the parent of an orchid, you have a heavy responsibility to get it right while you have the chance.” Pressure much? Here’s the thing: You have to balance sheltering your orchid with exposing him to natural elements so he can grow. He needs to face some adversity in order to gain life skills. Anticipate that highly stimulating or new social situations may make him anxious—but don’t automatically avoid them. (If a birthday party at a crowded arcade sounds like your personal parenting hell, you may be raising an orchid.) Prepare him by talking through a plan for what to do if he becomes overwhelmed (seeking out quiet spaces, sitting down and having a cup of water). If possible, look for smaller, more nurturing school settings. Most of all, tune out anyone who accuses you of being a helicopter parent. Writes Koehler: “It is far easier to be self-righteous about parenting if you have dandelion children.” Amen.

dandelion children

Dandelion Children

Temperament: Like dandelions, these hardy little buds can grow anywhere. If you had an “easy” baby, you may have a dandelion on your hands. Psychologically speaking, they are less likely to be affected by adversity, less anxious and more adaptable. “Like dandelions that thrive in almost any environment, such children are mostly unperturbed by the stressors and traumas they confront,” explains Thomas Boyce. If there’s a downside to all this (enviable) resilience, it may be less automatic sensitivity to the emotions of others. According to a study in the journal Translational Psychiatry, “Dandelions are more extroverted and less anxious but at the same time less responsive to positive mood induction.” Researchers found they showed almost no response to anti-bullying initiatives in school, for example. 

Tips: Don’t mistake your child’s strength for invincibility. While, as Boyce writes, “Dandelions seem impervious to all but the most virulent of threats and insults,” they are still children, and will always need your love and support. You may have to dig a little deeper to ascertain your happy-go-lucky dandelion’s feelings. And since she is less likely to get her feathers ruffled by run-of-the-mill conflict, it may help to act as her empathy coach when she is at odds with other kids.

tulip children

Tulip Children

Temperament: Writes Koehler: “Tulip children fall somewhere in between the demanding orchids and the resilient dandelions.” Less fragile than orchids but more sensitive than dandelions, the majority of kids show characteristics of both. As a result, they may seem unpredictable to their parents (welcome to childhood; it’s a wild ride). Tulips may frustrate when they suddenly stop going with the flow like the dandelion you thought they were. But they’re also unlikely to demand as much attention or react as explosively to stress as their orchid peers or siblings.   

Tips: Like all kids, tulips benefit from predictable structure and routine. As Thomas Boyce told NPR, “Orchid children seem to thrive on having things like dinner every night in the same place at the same time with the same people, having certain kinds of rituals that the family goes through week to week, month to month…This kind of routine and sameness of life from day to day, week to week, seems to be something that is helpful to kids with these great susceptibilities." Since your tulip has much in common with an orchid, this applies to him as well. When his day-to-day experience plays out predictably, he’ll be better able to manage life’s inevitable ups and downs.