Raising sensitive lambs in our stressful world

Let’s start at the very beginning – the birth of a child. While we gaze upon this unique miracle, we can’t see what has come along invisibly inside your child.

Epigenetics now shows that we can bring trauma from previous generations, mental health conditions like anxiety and schizophrenia, neurodivergence like autism and ADHD, and the temperament and disposition of one of our ancestors. It’s a bit like getting a surprise parcel.

I’ve been writing for a long time about the temperament spectrum, roosters to lambs. This is a simple way of capturing our innate tendencies and how we cope with the world. Roosters tend to be more confident, braver, louder, more energetic and often need less sleep. They do tend to have a heightened sense of their own importance from a very early age too! Sadly, our world tends to celebrate the loud, confident child and adult, as there is a perception they will be able to contribute more to the world. This is an incorrect perception.

At the other end of the spectrum are our lambs.

Some of the characteristics of lambs are:

  • They love sleeping.
  • They often dislike noise and too much stimulation.
  • They are very sensitive to being sanctioned or growled at.
  • They get distressed easily when shouted at.
  • They may keep a comforter like a blanket or teddy well into childhood.
  • They quite like solo time.
  • They are very patient and can wait while roosters go first lots!
  • They get distressed easily by strange people, places and things.
  • They prefer routines and predictability.
  • They prefer small numbers of children to play with.
  • They tend to take longer to adjust to change.
  • They can take longer to warm up in social settings they are familiar with, like playgroup.
  • They withdraw when they feel frightened.
  • They often hide under their bed or in a cupboard when scared as children.
  • They can easily be bullied or bossed around by roosters.
  • They can struggle with social dislocation more than roosters, e.g. new teachers, schools or change of home or relationship.
  • They can lack assertiveness and can be slow at making decisions.
  • They can struggle with large social situations and often avoid them!
  • They can struggle with shyness.

Lambs are typically quieter, more patient, more accommodating and generally more content with life. As babies and toddlers, lambs can be less fractious and quite delightful really – they make you look like a fabulous parent. To be honest, not only can lambs make you look like a much better parent, you will tend to get more sleep and lose less hair from stress!

I was blessed with two lambs and two roosters, and I certainly know who was easier to love and who I never wanted to leave home. My lamb sons were considerate and thoughtful of others from a young age. They did not have a need to show off, or to engage in power struggles, especially with their parents. They definitely can tend to be “slow to warm” in social situations and would often be more anxious going into unfamiliar environments. This means that even with people they know they can take a while to be comfortable interacting. I have a very special great-nephew who is a gentle lad. Whenever I used to visit, even if I stayed overnight, on first seeing me he often hid behind his mum or moved away to hide behind a couch. While I smiled at him or winked and said “hello”, I allowed him to make the moves of connection. Once he has warmed up, he was very happy to play with me and allowed me to hold him.

Forcing children to connect or interact before they have ‘warmed up’ can be quite stressful for them and it can often make them even more fearful in future.

The same goes for shy children — slowly building their confidence by respecting their sensitive nature is the best way to go. Some days, lambs can be anxious going into familiar environments, and they are particularly sensitive to any change in their environment. They can especially struggle with transitions and rushing them can create big emotions. Sometimes they can benefit with more time before starting big school.

As lambs often lack personal courage and confidence, it is important for parents and early childhood educators to help build these emotional competences while they are under five if possible. Encouraging them to take small manageable risks in their play and learning, you can help them build their confidence and capacity to be more assertive and capable socially.

Gradually building the steps of bravery can really help our lambs become stronger and more resilient.

Never force a lamb to do something they are reluctant to do. This can scar them for life.

Even though the role of temperament has a big influence on parenting choices, it is helpful to think of the continuum as a guide to what competences or qualities children need to develop, in order to be a blend of both rooster and lamb traits. In families, roosters and lambs can help each other — the roosters can assist to toughen up the sensitive lambs, and the lambs help to build sensitivity and gentleness in the roosters. Sibling rivalry is Mother Nature’s way of softening roosters and strengthening lambs.

Do not be fooled that lambs are by nature weak, just because they are sensitive. I have found that lambs can be very determined and capable as they grow older with positive parenting and opportunities to develop mastery.

Lamb-orchid children

After reading my article on raising the rooster-orchid child, a number of parents have reached out to me for some more guidance in raising our double-sensitive children, our lamb-orchids.

Some have even expressed that it feels like walking on eggshells around their homes because of the emotional volatility of their lamb-orchid little ones. Let me explain further what I mean by this term. Dr W. Thomas Boyce in his book called Orchids and Dandelions: Why some children struggle and how they can thrive, observed over his 40 years as a paediatrician that there was an unevenness in the health and developmental differences of children from birth. Some children just seem to have a special capacity to thrive even in the presence of adversity, while others seem to struggle much more, even with smaller challenges. His research suggested that the variance that he noted is attributable not to innate traits that a child is born with, but to differences in children’s relative biological susceptibility to the social context in which they live and grow, both the negative and the positive.

Put simply, this means that some children have a kind of ‘biological indifference’ to experiences of adversity because the stress response circuits in their brain are just not as reactive as more sensitive children. He called the children who naturally thrive dandelions because dandelions can grow anywhere! He called those with heightened sensitivity orchids because they are much harder to nurture and grow. It is such a good metaphor to explain some of these differences. Many neurodivergent children have strong orchid tendencies.

Given the latest research that is explored in Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book How Emotions are Made: The secret life of the brain, this capacity to thrive may be partly explained by how effective a child’s capacity for interoception is. That’s how well the brain can manage the ‘body budget’ (as Feldman Barrett calls it) not just from day-to-day, but from moment to moment. The relative indifference of dandelion children and the special sensitivity of orchid children to their early environment into which they are born is most likely attributable to the joint effects of genetics and social contexts. Even though there may be a predisposition towards sensitivity on the DNA, in terms of genetic variation the influence of nature or experiences following birth are really significant to keep in mind. This is great news because it means that it is not fixed and that, with awareness and with conscious choices to support our children (especially our orchids), they can grow to thrive in time.

This sensitivity trait happens to around 15-20% of the human population and we need to see this not as a problem to be solved, but rather a potential that needs to be nurtured. This trait can serve as an important purpose for individuals and for society because sensitive people can sense danger and see the consequences of inaction before others do.

So if you are the parent of a lamb-orchid please be mindful of the way that others can see this as a deficit and avoid your child becoming labelled as shy, inhibited, anxious, frightened or fussy. The problem is not your child, the problem is the expectations of an overstimulated, noisy, success-driven world.

How can you help them to grow and thrive?

Firstly, strive to build the strongest sense of attachment and a safe connected base from as early as possible. Of course, this is important for all children however having a reliable, always safe grown-up is especially important for lamb-orchid little ones.

This may mean that you will have to walk the floorboards more to soothe them in the middle of the night. They may have a stronger need for comforters like dummies, special blankets, endless soft toys in their bed and you may need to be home-based longer. Social events and occasions can be especially difficult for our sensitive children.  They may need to co-sleep with you for more years than rooster children.

You will need to find levels of patience you never knew you had because they will have moments of fussiness and sensitivity, particularly around sensory input like noise, touch, smell, taste and change. It is much harder for a lamb-orchid to manage their body budget well. They will need safe, strong grown-ups who can help them refill their depleted body budgets far more frequently than dandelion children. They will be the child that will have meltdowns, possibly more often in the early years, as they will struggle with their capacity to regulate themselves more than other children. They will be the child who gets distressed because the water is wet in the bath, and their sibling looked at them or they wanted six toes on their foot, not five (having said that rooster-orchids can be a bit the same just with a more loud and intense response!).

There is a plus with having a lamb-orchid rather than a rooster-orchid, because their emotional struggles are not usually as loud or intense and they tend to respond to adult soothing better.

As these sensitive little ones become upset – in order  to discharge the stress hormone cortisol from their body – the more their safe grown-ups are able to stay calm and grounded, and soothe and comfort them, the more they learn how to do this for themselves. It just takes longer to develop emotional maturity.

Given that sensory input can be particularly triggering, try to master low vocal tones in your home, avoid loud noises and high volumes on TVs. The quieter and calmer your home, the more your sensitive child will be able to cope. The more chaotic and unpredictable your home, the more your sensitive child will simply flounder and feel flooded.

I have written extensively about the importance of micro-moments of connection and they work particularly powerfully for our lamb-orchid children. Your job is to work out which of these connections works the best, and to prioritise it every day.

When our children are struggling with feeling anxious, we need to validate that they are finding things hard rather than that they are weak.

If we keep reminding them that they can grow in bravery, in small steps until they are very brave, that can be really helpful. I recommend reading Karen Young’s excellent picture book Hey Awesome to your sensitive child because it explains that sometimes, the threat centre in their brain called the amygdala, can just be too enthusiastic. Teaching them simple ways to calm themselves, especially by your modelling, can make a world of difference.

As they can often lack confidence, try to find things that they can do very competently. It could be doing a puzzle, a drawing, dressing themselves, climbing a monkey bar, riding a bike without training wheels or singing a song. The key is for them to do it frequently so they can build genuine mastery.

When this happens, they can stop telling themselves that they are not good enough, brave enough, or smart enough. I recommend Lauren Thompson’s fabulous picture book, There’s a Bully in My Brain to help you with this. Negative self-talk learnt in childhood can be problematic for all children, especially our sensitive children.

Celebrate your sensitive child’s strengths – because they will definitely have them.

Helping your lamb- orchid build a sense of safety and predictability, in the first 6 to 8 years of life, can help them grow in confidence. Whether it is transitioning to school, starting a new hobby, going to a birthday party or going on a bike ride, get used to preparing them for what may eventuate. I know of a very sensitive little girl who would ask endless questions in the car on the way to any social event, and now she is a fearless, brave little girl who doesn’t need to do that anymore. Sometimes pretending and practising a transition, or how to approach a new situation like going to the dentist, can be especially helpful for these sensitive little ones.

My last couple of suggestions to help you raise your lamb-orchid child to be able to thrive, is to create a good tribe of humans with other children that you spend time with as they grow older. Having predictable humans, playing in outside environments, with older and younger children of all genders, is incredibly helpful in building your sensitive child’s courage and social skills.

Finally, create rituals and opportunities in your home for lots of quiet conversations and chats with your sensitive child, from the early years to adulthood. When they feel heard, under­­­­­stood and accepted, even when they struggle to be brave, they can grow, in their own time, in their own way.

The world needs sensitive kids as well as fearless warriors. Just because they may need a little more time to grow and to be able to navigate the world as easily as our rooster kids, does not mean they are any less valued.




Image credit: © by lumina stock /Depositphotos.com