For those who are not familiar with my work, I often talk about the differences in our children’s temperaments as being on a continuum from ‘rooster’ to ‘lamb’. Sometimes our rooster children can lack empathy and be overly driven to be centre stage, to win at all costs and they are full of energy. Our lamb children are often very empathetic and thoughtful, and can struggle to keep up with the rooster children as they take longer to grow in confidence and courage.
Dr W. Thomas Boyce writes about children’s sensitivity to their environment in his book The Orchid and the Dandelion. In it he talks about children as being either ‘orchids’ or sturdy ‘dandelions’. He argues that orchid children are much more reactive and susceptible to their surroundings and his research explores the interplay between neurobiological and psychosocial factors that lead to differences in child health and wellbeing.
Following a long conversation with my dear friend Dr Vanessa Lapointe about roosters and lambs and orchids and dandelions when she was last in Australia, I have been observing many confident and capable rooster children very closely and have noticed that some roosters can really struggle emotionally at times – particularly around feeling invalidated, not good enough and ignored. These are orchid-like tendencies, and feeling vulnerable instead of fearless and strong can create some serious inner emotional turmoil.
These highly spirited little ones can really struggle with jealousy – sensing they are loved less than their sibling, their friend and yes that one parent is not loving them enough. Endless reassurance is needed until they can manage this big emotion better.
Girls under 5
You will know if you have a rooster-orchid little girl in your home mainly by the intensity of her distress in highly emotional times. When such a little girl is distressed, she may have significant tantrums and or meltdowns that can last up to an hour, or more sometimes. I have known of some little girls who can have long meltdowns over very small things and it can be really confusing and frustrating for their parents to work out how to help them. It can be helpful to know that the nervous system can become gradually overloaded in our intense rooster children – both girls and boys. In the years 2-4 when they are seeking their own sense of identity and autonomy, the tiniest bit of perceived resistance from their parents can mean the whole nervous system does a complete discharge of excess stress hormones and neurochemicals. This can happen with the wrong colour cup, getting into the car seat by themselves or (a favourite that I have witnessed in our family) resisting the afternoon nap that their little body seriously needs! The rooster part of the personality is about seeking their own choices even if they are completely irrational because they are still young children, and this is developmentally appropriate.
Some rooster-orchid little girls can frequently struggle with emotional intensity. Research suggests that girls are able to understand and articulate their emotions more easily than little boys of the same age, however awful their big ugly feelings feel in the moment. When this happens these intense, feisty little girls can verbalise how much they hate their parents, how they would like to live somewhere else or how they never want to speak to their loving parent ever again!
Heartbreaking yep! It can be helpful to remember that these words are your little girls trying to communicate how big their ugly feelings are in the moment. Having emotional storms is developmentally normal and appropriate for our little ones under five as they are still learning how to discharge the awful sensations more effectively. As orchid children they are particularly susceptible to responding to many sensory inputs more than the naturally easy-going dandelion kids and many of these pressures are invisible to them and their parents.
I know of some little girls who have discovered for themselves that running to their bedroom, slamming the door and snuggling on their bed with their favourite comforter blanket or teddy helps them better than a well-meaning parent trying to soothe them.
Even though our little girls are generally better able to articulate their big emotions, they can be further triggered by their parents’ well-meaning verbal attempts to help.
Keep in mind the metaphor of the glitter jar that, when shaken, spontaneously sees the jar flooded with glitter. Allowing some calm-down time, the glitter will settle on the bottom. When your little one is settled, this is a much better time to chat to her about what may have caused her distress.
I have noticed that these often-volatile little girls, when regulated, are often very empathetic and they can pick up the emotional distress of others, including their parents. They will often start crying if a younger sibling has been hurt, or if they have witnessed distress in their mummy or daddy or a friend who is sad or angry. As they grow older, they will learn better ways of managing healthy boundaries around the big feelings of others. However, it does take time.
Boys under 5
I know of a 4-year-old rooster boy who suddenly became so frustrated and angry with the Lego he was building, he punched his fist through a nearby window! It scared the heck out of his mother and she had no idea what she needed to do as a parent in that moment. His mother realised that he had had very little intention in that moment as it happened so quickly and she felt it was an automatic response to the intensity of his feelings. Boys, particularly young boys, often will express their big ugly feelings through their physicality.
In my book Mothering our Boys I explore research that shows there is a difference in how girls’ and boys’ brains tend to react to distress. In girls’ brains the limbic brain fires up with distress, and the next centre to fire up is the word centre of the brain. Hence those scary vitriolic outbursts that I mentioned above, which can come very quickly after an upset – for girls and women of all ages! In boys, however, after the limbic brain fires up, the part of the brain that is responsible for the body fires up and the word centre is slower to do so.
Most boys can use physicality to express their big ugly feelings, however rooster-orchid boys tend to be more explosive and quicker to explode. Sadly, many of these little boys are then punished for being naughty or bad, when what they really need is help to learn how to manage their big feelings when they are triggered and dis-regulated.
Rooster boys are often very competitive and seek external experiences to measure their own self-worth. So, when they fail to achieve something they strive for –building the best tower, running the fastest, climbing the highest or being the funniest – then it triggers a deep sense of distress. Not only is this worse in a public setting it can then be followed by intense embarrassment, which is another layer of distress. Running away, throwing things, shoving other children, biting, and screaming really loudly are all signs that a boy is completely flooded with big emotions and he is trying his best to get away from feeling so lousy.
As rooster children tend to have a heightened sense of their own importance, moments of failure cut very deeply, especially for boys. Often this can create an internal cycle of self-loathing and many teenage boys and men have told me that being punished and shamed for struggling to cope with moments of failure, has created negative mindsets and thinking patterns that they still struggle with as adults. We must take the time to help boys when they muck up with this simple process.
You can help the explosive rooster-orchid child with their intense big feelings, by teaching some simple habits that you also model.
Taking immediate deep breaths, bending knees and placing a hand on their heart and imagining breathing in a sky-blue colour will soothe their reactive nervous system.
I also suggest teaching these strong, sensitive children to tap frequently on the side of the nail on the middle finger with their thumb. This can help diffuse tension especially around frustration and anger. See www.eftdownunder.com for more on tapping.
Perfectionism in the rooster-orchid
Many rooster children have an inbuilt wiring to strive to continually better themselves. They are often dissatisfied with achieving the same level whether that be an academic goal, sporting goal or a bettering their sibling goal.
For the rooster-orchid child who has older siblings, this can become problematic. They are often comparing themselves to an older child with totally unrealistic expectations of themselves.
A sign that your rooster child may be striving too hard with unrealistic expectations, is that they are seldom content with any tasks they attempt. I know of many rooster-orchid children who do a homework task many times, striving to do it better each time. This can be a sign they are developing an unhealthy sense of perfectionism and we do need to help them with this as soon as we identify it.
Another sign that your rooster-orchid is overly invested in striving to be better, is that they seldom seem content in their life. Not only can they express negative feelings about themselves, but they can often get into a pattern of blaming others for the things they are unhappy about – especially siblings, the parents, teachers and coaches. Blame is a scapegoat that needs to be tamed for our rooster-orchid kids.
What helps our rooster-orchids thrive?
- Marinate your children in opportunities to fail as often as possible under five. This will help them build strategies that they can take forward in life.
- Avoid joining their emotional storms and once the storm has passed, ensure your rooster-orchid feels safe and loved. Knowing that they are loved unconditionally and fiercely is incredibly important as they develop better emotional coping skills. This helps them to learn to love and accept themselves – no matter what!
- Create opportunities for deep chats about things that challenge our rooster-orchids quietly and privately. Bath chats, pillow chats or one-on-one chats in the car will help them gradually build their understanding of how to be strong and sensitive and to better perceive the world around them.
- Avoid using external rewards or bribes with these children as they will feel manipulated and lose their trust in you.
- Help them find ways to healthily discharge their big ugly feelings without hurting themselves or others in the world around them. (Check out my whole playlist of free Maggie Soothers for some inspiration here). Focus on your rooster-orchid child’s natural strengths and support them to pursue whatever gives them a spark.
- Help to cultivate a healthy sense of humour as it will help them diffuse inner angst and turmoil.
- Focus on ways to build a healthy character – read books about kindness and empathy and share stories of wonderful humans who have made the world a better place with compassion.
- If they come home a little heightened or dysregulated create a pathway to releasing stress and restoring positive neurochemicals. Some kids will love to chat, while others won’t. Work out what works best for your child. Seriously consider getting a good dog.
- Prioritise lots of play in nature as it allows our rooster-orchid kids to feel free and in control of their world. Plus, nature will restore them to their centre.
- Practise respectful listening when they want to share their world. Feeling disregarded and invalidated can trigger an overt stress response quite quickly. Feeling heard is incredibly important for these kids.
- Encourage them to value fairness and kindness even when striving for greatness.
Finally, we need to coach our rooster-orchids through big emotions and here are some great tips for building them up and connecting them with their hearts.
Despite the challenges in raising these strong yet sensitive little ones know that they are often tomorrow’s leaders, change makers and healers. They will have the strength to stand up to the wrongs of the world, and find ways to make the world a better place while considering and respecting others. The world needs rooster-orchid children no matter how challenging they can be as children. It will be worth it eventually. I should know … I am a rooster-orchid child all grown up!
Image credit: © [sushytaka] /Adobe Stock – stock.adobe.com