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Is your child a tulip? New study examines how children react to their environment

A new study looking at children's environmental sensitivity finds that children fall into three types: orchids, dandelions or tulips.
by Meghan Holohan / / Source: TODAY

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Every child is different and every parent knows that. But it can still feel surprising and confusing when one kid struggles with an issue their brother or sister never dealt with. A new study might be able to help. Researchers took a closer look at how environmental sensitivity might add to our understanding of the differences among children.

“Sensitive children perceive negative aspects of a ‘toxic’ environment more strongly than less sensitive children and therefore suffer more from it,” Michael Pluess, author of the paper in Developmental Psychology, and associate professor of developmental psychology at Queen Mary University in London, told TODAY via email.

Experts know environment plays a role in childhood development, but they had no way to measure it. While several tests looking at environmental sensitivity exist for adults, they are too long to effectively measure a child’s sensitivity.

To better understand environmental sensitivity for children age 10 to 19, Pluess and his colleagues created a 12-point scale, which they tested in several experiments and determined that it’s effective (younger children struggle to accurately answer the questionnaire).

Gild standing next to  orchid flower
Orchid children require different tending than dandelion children. Getty Images stock

The 12 items include:

  • I find it unpleasant to have a lot going on at once.
  • Some music can make me really happy.
  • I love nice tastes.
  • Loud noises make me feel uncomfortable.
  • I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once.
  • I notice it when small things have changed in my environment.
  • I get nervous when I have to do a lot in little time.
  • I love nice smells.
  • I don’t like watching TV programs that have a lot of violence in them.
  • I don’t like loud noises.
  • I don’t like it when things change in my life.
  • When someone observes me, I get nervous. This makes me perform worse than normal.

The kids rate each of the 12 items on scale from one to seven, with one correlating with "not at all" and seven meaning "extremely."

“It is basically a measure on how children differ in their sensitivity,” Pluess said. “The 12-item measure we have is a personality measure.”

This means the test measures how sensitive children are to their environment within a normal range. None of the results indicate problems, just how children react to their environment.

“All the descriptions are description of normal behaviors. Nothing in it is clinical. It does measure a wide range,” he said.

But it could help experts and parents better understand their children.

“Different children react differently to different stimuli, some kids respond differently to the same stimuli,” said Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert who did not participate in the study. “This test could give us a common language to discuss these children and measure their success.”

While Pluess and his colleagues believed they would be able to group children as either being highly sensitive or less sensitive to their environment, they also discovered that some children fall in the middle. They named the three categories after flowers:

  • Orchids — are highly sensitive children. Like orchids, they are difficult to tend to, but thrive when it's done correctly.
  • Dandelions — are less sensitive children. Like dandelions, these children are hearty and grow anywhere.
  • Tulips — children who fall between high and low sensitivity. They are delicate like orchids and hearty like dandelions.

While the test shows children vary when it comes to environmental sensitivity, it remains unclear what this means. But it could shape how schools, parents and clinicians develop interventions.

“We can create a better environment for low and high sensitive kids,” Pluess said.

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