Acutely sensitive children can be sometimes frustrating to their parents. But given a supportive environment, they can bloom into persons of exceptional talent, US scientists say.
Children who are especially reactive to stress are more vulnerable to adversity and have more behavior and health problems than their peers.
"Parents and teachers may find that sensitive children, like orchids, are more challenging to raise and care for, but they can bloom into individuals of exceptional ability and strength when reared in a supportive, nurturing, and encouraging environment," according to lead author Jelena Obradovi, an assistant professor in the School of Education at Stanford University.
The researchers looked at 338 kindergarteners, as well as their teachers and families, to determine how family adversity and biological reactivity contribute to healthy development.
"This study examined the direct and interactive effects of stress reactivity and family adversity on socioemotional and cognitive development in three hundred and thirty-eight 5- to 6-year-old children. Neurobiological stress reactivity was measured as respiratory sinus arrhythmia and salivary cortisol responses to social, cognitive, sensory, and emotional challenges. Adaptation was assessed using child, parent, and teacher reports of externalizing symptoms, prosocial behaviors, school engagement, and academic competence. Results revealed significant interactions between reactivity and adversity. High stress reactivity was associated with more maladaptive outcomes in the context of high adversity but with better adaption in the context of low adversity. The findings corroborate a reconceptualization of stress reactivity as biological sensitivity to context
by showing that high reactivity can both hinder and promote adaptive functioning," the researchers said.
"The study tells us that when children are highly susceptible to stress, it's not always bad news, but rather should be considered in terms of the type of environment they live in," explains Obradovi. She was at the University of British Columbia when she led the study.
The study, by scientists at the University of British Columbia, the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of California, Berkeley, appears in the January/February 2010 issue of the journal Child Development
. It was funded, in part, by the National Institute of Mental Health.