Monday, November 30, 2009

Orchid Kids: The Positives of Intense and Demanding Children

"Themistocles was an unruly boy, and carried on his mad pranks without much restraint. When taken to task for them he said, "The wildest colts make the best horses when they come to be properly trained." - Plutarch (46-120 AD)

Interesting article The Science of Success in Atlantic Monthly:

The first part starts out pretty predictable..."In 2004, Marian Bakermans-Kranenburg, a professor of child and family studies at Leiden University, started carrying a video camera into homes of families whose 1-to-3-year-olds indulged heavily in the oppositional, aggressive, uncooperative, and aggravating behavior that psychologists call “externalizing”: whining, screaming, whacking, throwing tantrums and objects, and willfully refusing reasonable requests. Staple behaviors in toddlers, perhaps. But research has shown that toddlers with especially high rates of these behaviors are likely to become stressed, confused children who fail academically and socially in school, and become antisocial and unusually aggressive adults."

The researchers found that behavioral interventions and video feedback to mothers really helped behavior, for instance helping mothers to recognize that their fidgety kids really did enjoy reading books together although they were restless and seemed distractible. But the study also had another level of analysis that highlighted the unexpected greater good in the genetically at-risk kids. When the outcomes of 'at-risk' allele kids were compared to outcomes of 'protective' allele kids, the 'at-risk' ones actually fared better.

"As it turned out, the toddlers with the risk allele blew right by their counterparts. They cut their externalizing scores by almost 27 percent, while the protective-allele kids cut theirs by just 12 percent (improving only slightly on the 11 percent managed by the protective-allele population in the control group). The upside effect in the intervention group, in other words, was far larger than the downside effect in the control group. Risk alleles, the Leiden team concluded, really can create not just risk but possibility.

Can liability really be so easily turned to gain? The pediatrician W. Thomas Boyce, who has worked with many a troubled child in more than three decades of child-development research, says the orchid hypothesis “profoundly recasts the way we think about human frailty.” He adds, “We see that when kids with this kind of vulnerability are put in the right setting, they don’t merely do better than before, they do the best—even better, that is, than their protective-allele peers..."

Very encouraging finding for families dealing with intense difficult temperament kids (difficult temperaments have been described as intense, negative, and slow to adapt), and bears out with our clinical practice too. Parents of these kids often need a great deal of support - and it is true that some kids are A LOT harder to parent than others. But there is an encouraging light at the end of the tunnel.

The authors argue for a more complex view of understanding 'genetic risk' - certainly when it comes to behavior: "...This new model sugggests that it's a mistake to understand these 'risk' genes only as liabilities. Yes, this new thinking goes, these bad genes can create dysfunction in unfavorable contexts- butthey can also enhance function to favorable contexts."

The story concludes: "The orchid variant of the DRD4 gene, for instance, increases risk of ADHD (a syndrome best characterized COchran and Harpending write, 'by actions that annoy elementary school teachers'). Yet attention restlessness can serve people well in environments that reward sensitivity to new stimuli. The current growth of multitasking, for instance may help select for just such attentional agility."

Eide Neurolearning Blog: Elementary Angst May Still Mean Success

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