Extra sensitive to discipline and compliments

Some children respond strongly to both negative and positive parenting styles

PhD Candidate Meike Slagt studies how sensitive children are to their upbringing: what works well for one child, does not work at all for another. This goes for tough punishments and discipline, but for warmth and compliments as well. How can we explain this?

In Meike Slagt's research field, the metaphor has become famous: you can roughly classify children as dandelions and orchids. Orchids are sensitive to what happens around them, while dandelions respond less strongly to their surroundings.

Many research publications on this subject have appeared in the past decade. Meike Slagt and her research group summarised 84 studies in a meta analysis: “I look at how children's sensitivities to parenting styles depend on their temperament, early personality characteristics. That is a continuous standard, from low to high and everything in between. This has never been researched statistically like that. In our analysis, we saw that many studies focus on a small part of the spectrum. For instance, they look only at the effects of either a cold parenting style, or a supportive one.”

"It's important to observe how the same child responds to different circumstances."

On top of that, a lot of research is about groups: “But Johnny might only respond strongly to harsh discipline, while Pete is primarily sensitive to warmth and support. That's why it's important to observe how the same child responds to different circumstances. For my own PhD research, which goes beyond this analysis, I try to measure the entire spectrum for a group of children.”


The strength in vulnerability

The meta analysis made by Slagt and her group offers a transcending conclusion: “This is the big picture. I think it's telling that so many research projects using different methods all point to the same conclusion.”

And that conclusion is? Children with 'difficult' temperaments appear to be more sensitive to both negative AND positive environmental influences. Especially children who displayed the temperamental characteristic negative emotionality as babies, which is a tendency for emotional instability. Slagt says: “What interests me most is the hopefulness of this premise. Maybe we should look differently at people that are traditionally seen as being vulnerable to stress: they could be sensitive to everything in their surroundings, including positive things.”

This became especially apparent when researchers assessed parenting styles by observations, instead of by means of questionnaires. “We think that observations are a bit more reliable than questionnaires that are filled out by the parents themselves. Their answers do not only reflect the actual situation, but also how they see themselves at that point in time. How do children experience their surroundings, and what sort of surroundings do parents think they provide? Those are not necessarily the same things.”

Be yourself, there are plenty of others

Slagt's research can yield important results, which educators can benefit from as well: “First of all, there is the message that people are different. We don't have to expect the same response from everyone. It is important to recognise that.”

“Traditional psychopathology primarily looks at what is wrong with people. We investigate why people are the way they are. How does the match between people and their surroundings work? We don't like it if people in our society are aggressive or depressed, fore example. But these behaviours or conditions may have been functional in our evolutionary past.”

“Less sensitive people might need different or more intensive help.”

Many questions remain. Do sensitive children respond strongly to their surroundings their entire lives? Or only during certain periods, such as puberty, when a lot of things change on a biological level?

With this knowledge, it's easier to make sure that people get the help they need. Not just the very sensitive children, but the 'dandelions' too: “People who are less sensitive might benefit from different or more intensive help.”

Meike Slagt will defend her PhD dissertation Differential Susceptibility to Social Contexts: Putting 'For Better and For Worse' to the Test on 3 March, 2017.