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

One of the chief concerns (and complaints) from parents I work with is that their children are super rigid and irrational.  Typical examples include: 

Henry throws a huge fit if I pick him up from childcare instead of Grandma, whom he’d been expecting.

Chelsea refused to take a bath because I turned on the water when she wanted to start the faucet.

Andrew's teachers report that his peers don't want to play with him because he is bossy and needs to dictate everything. Yesterday, he knocked down the block structure he was building with friends because he insisted it was going to be a home for their action figures but his playmates had already decided it was going to be a restaurant. 

If any of these scenarios sounds familiar, you are not alone.

What the children featured above have in common is a challenge with being flexible—the ability to adapt when they can’t get exactly what they want, when they want it, or when something unexpected happens.

Flexibility is one of the most important assets for functioning well in this world. It is 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 the job of snack-helper when he can't be the line leader. 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 have a high frustration-tolerance are naturally more adaptable. Children who are big reactors and who crave predictability and a sense of control tend to be more 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 her favorite red bowl. 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 tend to become a little dictatorial and rigid when 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. Consider the child who feels very uncomfortable when other kids get too close to him and invade his space. For this child, the world can feel overwhelming as he is constantly bombarded by unpleasant sensations. This naturally makes him 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. (Learn more about the impact of sensory processing on behavior.) 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 their dinner plate are coping mechanisms to control their environment. While these behaviors might seem completely irrational, in that moment children feel as if they can’t survive the discomfort or violation of their expectation.

Helping naturally inflexible children learn flexibility may take more time and patience, but it is especially important. 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 or you are reinforcing her rigidity. Helping children learn to be flexible means getting comfortable with their discomfort. They need to go through the experience of not getting what they want in order to see that they can survive when things don't go exactly the way they expected.

How do you teach flexibility?

Validate your child's emotions and experience.
Remember, feelings are never the problem. It's what kids do with their feelings that can become problematic. The more you acknowledge the emotion that is driving their behavior the better able they are to learn to manage it in more effective ways: "You are upset because you thought grandma was going to pick you up. I totally get that--you don't like it when something different happens from what you expected." 

Set the limit calmly and lovingly. "But grandma went to the doctor and the appointment took longer than expected. So I am here to get you."  Then, as calmly as you can, move along to show your child that you are not going to engage in a long back-and-forth about this or react to his protestations as that only reinforces the inflexibility. Ignore his attempts to draw you into a struggle but don't ignore him. Even as he's kicking and screaming as you buckle him into the car seat you might start telling a funny story, put on music he likes, or talk about what you might play together when you get home, to show him that you are available to engage in positive ways but will not keep a negative dynamic going. 

Always keep in mind: the world doesn't adapt to us, we have to adapt to the world. That's why limits are loving. 

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:

  • “Teddy, 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.” Then ignore his antics, change the baby's diaper and re-engage Teddy when you're done. Let him know he did a great job waiting (even if he screamed the whole time) and that now you can read the book. The idea is to focus on the fact that he survived the waiting--the behavior you want to reinforce--and not to pay attention to the behaviors designed to derail you and get you to adapt to his demands.

  • “What do you think it feels like to Sumi when you always get to be Batman but she wants a turn, too? How might we help you solve that problem?” 

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!

Learn more about how to set clear and loving limits that teach kids flexibility—to bend without breaking.