Highly sensitive children thrive when they're raised in supportive environments, a new study has found.
It has been known that kids who are especially reactive to stress are more vulnerable to adversity and have more behavior and health problems than their peers.
But the study, by scientists at the University of British Columbia, the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of California, Berkeley, which appears in the January/February 2010 issue of the journal Child Development, offers a new side to the long-held belief.
"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 Jelena Obradovic, an assistant professor in the School of Education at Stanford University (Dr. Obradovic was at the University of British Columbia when she led the study).
To reach the conclusion, researchers looked at 338 kindergarteners, as well as their teachers and families, to determine how family adversity and biological reactivity contribute to healthy development.
They found that children who had significantly stronger biological reactions to a series of mildly stressful tasks designed to look like challenges in their daily lives were more affected by their family contexts, both bad and good. This means that highly reactive children were more likely to have developmental problems when growing up in adverse, stressful family settings.
But contrary to expectation, such children were also more likely to thrive when they were raised in caring, low-stress families because of their sensitivities to the supportive and nurturing qualities of such environments.
"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 Obradovic.