Want to Help Your Child Cope in an Increasingly Complex World? Focus on Flexibility

Flexibility—the ability to adapt when we can’t get exactly what we want, when we want it, or when something unexpected happens—is one of the most important assets a person can have to function well in this world. Flexibility is also an essential ingredient for working effectively in groups and developing healthy relationships, because it enables us to take into consideration the perspectives and needs of others. Indeed, according to the World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs” report, the following skills are among the list of necessary competencies children need to develop to be most effective and successful in our rapidly changing workplaces:

  • Coordinating with others

  • Negotiation skills

  • Cognitive flexibility (creativity, logical reasoning, and problem sensitivity)

All of these skills require the ability to be flexible. In childhood, this might mean a 4-year-old giving up his space at the sand table to a classmate who hasn’t had a turn yet; or accepting that a friend has a better idea of where they should put their dinosaurs to sleep. This translates into the ability to cooperate on a group project at school or on a sports team, and later, to be a good, colleague in the office.

It’s important to keep in mind that learning to be flexible is harder for some children than others, largely due to their temperament. Go-with-the-flow kids who make transitions easily, have a high frustration-tolerance, and whose mood is generally positive are naturally more adaptable. Children who have a more negative mood or who are big reactors tend to be inflexible by nature. These are the kids who have intense responses to seemingly minor stressors, such as a parent turning off the light when the child wanted to do it, even though she hadn’t voiced this; or a child hurling her cereal bowl across the room because her dad put the Cheerios in the blue bowl, not the red bowl she prefers. They get overwhelmed more easily than even-keeled kids because their strong emotions are hard to manage, which makes them feel out of control. And when kids feel out of control on the inside, they tend to become more controlling on the outside. Parents often describe these kids as bossy. They may dictate to their peers what role they can play in the story they are creating together, or which blocks they can use. While these behaviors are “unacceptable”, it’s important to recognize that they are coping mechanisms that serve to reduce the stress of having to manage the discomfort of not being in control. (Adults do this too—we can become controlling when internally we feel like our world is spinning out of control.)

Flexibility can be even more challenging for children who have low sensory thresholds, meaning they are over-responsive to sensory input. For example, a group of children are playing in the block corner when a child across the room drops a car on the floor. While most of the kids barely process this noise, a child with a low threshold for sound might get very distracted by this sound. This can be true for children’s responses to other senses: consider the child who feels very uncomfortable when other kids get too close to him or when there is a lot of activity and movement surrounding him. For this child, the world can feel overwhelming as he is constantly bombarded and made uncomfortable by sensations his body is unable to process. He is over-responding. This naturally makes these children feel more out of control than children whose sensory systems are better regulated and who are able to tolerate more input from the outside world. Dictating where people will sit, how loud the music can be, what clothes they will and will not wear, or how close the chicken is to the carrots on the plate are coping mechanisms to control their environment. While their behavior might seem completely irrational, in that moment they feel as if they can’t survive this violation of their expectation.

Helping naturally inflexible children learn flexibility may take more time and patience, but it is especially important. They need to experience that they can survive the discomfort of not having things go exactly the way they expected. While it seems easier to just take the desired red bowl out of the dishwasher and give it to the child who is demanding it (to take everyone out of their misery), it’s critical not to give in.

How do you teach flexibility?

Set clear limits, lovingly. Limits teach flexibility because they require adaptation—the ability to pivot when you can’t get something you want. For example, a child choosing another snack when the cookies he craves are not an option; or, engaging in another activity when screen time is over.

Teach perspective-taking. There are countless opportunities to help children see the world from another person’s point-of-view and take into account that person’s needs and feelings:

  • “I know you want me to read this book right now, but Joey is uncomfortable and needs a diaper change. I’ll read to you when he’s all set.”

  • “What do you think it feels like to Sumi when you don’t let her have any of the markers? Let’s make a plan for how you can share them.”

Model flexibility. Highlight ways you are being flexible in your everyday experiences. “I can’t find my favorite hat. I guess I’ll have to be flexible and wear this one instead.” “This restaurant isn’t open. We’ll have to be flexible and choose a different place to eat.” “We were going to go to the park this afternoon, but I see you have some energy to burn so I am going to be flexible and take you this morning!”

Acknowledge and give a lot of positive feedback when your child is being flexible. “You gave Henry the tunnel he wanted for his train and took the bridge instead. You did a great job being flexible!” “You really wanted to go on the swing, but they were all taken, so you played in the sandbox instead. Great job being flexible!

To learn more about how to set clear and loving limits that teach kids flexibility—to bend without breaking—and to make good choices, read this blog. And, since setting these kinds of limits can be especially hard when in public, check out this blog post to learn about ways to manage these incidents.