Kids tend to do well with routine because predictability helps them feel safe and secure. It’s why bedtime routines can prevent fights — and why toddlers will use their allotted screen time to watch the same episode of Paw Patrol for weeks on end. So big feelings arise — and sometimes even erupt — when shows unexpectedly disappear from streaming services, anticipated meal plans change, or a family trip is canceled last-minute.
Every parent should expect a certain amount of irrational volatility from young children. But there are steps they can take to help kids develop flexibility and openness to change, which will help them adjust to bumps in the road and lay the foundation for other desirable character traits as they grow older.
“Flexibility is a big category that’s hugely important for all of us, adults included,” says Stuart Ablon, Ph.D., a psychologist and director of Think: Kids in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. “How you respond to a change in routine, how you handle a new or ambiguous or uncertain situation, and the ability to see the big picture while not getting mired in unimportant details are all types of flexible thinking.”
Here are three ways parents can teach their children to be flexible and open to change.
Parents of Adaptable Kids Understand That Flexibility Is a Skill
Although temperament and personality tend to pop to the top of the mind when thinking about flexibility, Ablon encourages parents to view challenging or inflexible kids through the lens of skill development.
“We’ve learned scientifically over time that kids' ability to manage their behavior is about skill,” he says. “It's not whether a kid cares enough to control themselves, so they don't melt down. It's whether they're able to evidence the skills required to handle situations that are overwhelming for them.”
Specifically, psychologists view flexibility as a neurocognitive skill that develops over time. Kids start to develop this skill between the ages of 4 and 6. One of the reasons the twos can be so terrible is that 2-year-olds have developed the tools to express themselves — crying and screaming among them — but can’t yet embrace change.
Rather than trying to force the impossible for kids who aren’t developmentally ready to embrace change, Albon aims to help adults shift to a more compassionate mindset that doesn’t view kids along a continuum of good and bad. Instead, he encourages parents to view challenging kids as those with an underdeveloped skill set. It’s a paradigm that moves away from behavior modification models grounded in punishment and reward, and instead focuses on what triggers a child’s challenging behavior — so the adults in the child’s life can help them learn how to be flexible and adaptable in those situations.
One way to do this is by prompting kids to ask if they can have a re-do or a compromise instead of sending them to timeout after reacting poorly to something not going their way; this not only corrects their behavior, but also teaches them to try a more appropriate tactic. It’s certainly frustrating when your child instinctively whines and flails after you tell them they can’t have ice cream an hour before dinner. But asking them if they’d like to calmly ask for a compromise — perhaps some fruit before dinner or ice cream after dinner if they finish their plate — opens the door for them to practice flexibility, reasonable requests, good manners.
“When you're talking about a skill and building a skill, you're literally changing the brain,” Ablon says. “We know a lot more these days about how you change the brain, and one of the core principles is repetition. To develop a skill over time, a person needs to practice that skill in little doses.” So help your child build that skill, a little bit at a time.
Parents of Adaptable Kids Encourage Collaborative Problem-Solving
Ask a child for possible solutions when you reach an impasse with them and you’ll get some creative solutions. But the likelihood that those solutions are mutually satisfactory is slim as kids tend to be more than a little selfish.
Ablon recommends a simple three-step process to problem-solving. It starts with being empathetic. “You just try to gather information from your kid about what their point of view is, how they feel about something, what worries they might have, and what's hard about the situation,” Ablon says. “You're really trying to understand things from their point of view.”
Before jumping straight to problem-solving, parents then share their concerns. For example, if your kid wants three cookies and you only want them to have one, instead of making a counteroffer, you would explain that you’re concerned they might get a stomachache or might not be able to sleep well if they stuff themselves full of sugar. This opens the child’s mind to the possibility that the disagreement isn’t just about exerting authority, but that the adult wants what is best for the kid.
“Once you have those two sets of concerns,” Ablon says, “you then go to the third ingredient, which is the invitation to brainstorm. You are literally just saying to your kids, ‘I wonder what we can do about this. I wonder how we may be able to work this out in a way that addresses what you just described to me that you care about and what I care about as well?’”
It can be tough for parents not to suggest solutions at this point. But providing the solutions yourself would be like teaching your kid to ride a bike solely by having them watch other people ride bikes. Rather, they need to try it out for themselves. They’ll fall, but eventually they will learn and adjust and develop the ability to ride independently. Similarly, you need to let your child try problem-solving themselves.
Early in the process, kids will still come up with untenable ideas. It’s the problem-solving equivalent of falling off of a bike — and it may signal inflexibility if they don’t want to make significant concessions. But don’t bail them out at this point. Instead, keep the process going by continuing to hear and affirm them.
If they come up with the solution that they have three of the smallest cookies, for example, you could say, “Okay, well, that's an idea that would work really well for you. I'm worried it doesn't work so great for me. I still think we can come up with something that works for both of us. Let's keep thinking of other ideas,” Ablon says. “It’s a form of problem-solving that engages both you and your kid in an exercise that’s heavy on flexibility.”
However, there are some situations in which negotiation and compromise simply aren’t feasible. One of the challenges for parents is identifying lower-stakes situations where they can guide kids through a problem-solving process and show that not every situation has to be an all-or-nothing battle.
Parents of Adaptable Kids Push Their Children…But Not Too Hard
The collaborative problem-solving dance hinges on finding the sweet spot where kids are pushed outside of their comfort zone but not pushed so far that they melt down. However, finding that sweet spot where kids are challenged enough to learn but not so challenged that they’re overloaded can be difficult.
“Young kids can get flooded with emotion and dysregulated very quickly. And the more flooded with emotion humans are, the more we respond to things with the more primitive parts of our brain, which means that flexibility goes out the window and we actually become horribly inflexible,” Ablon says. “Pay close attention to helping them manage their emotions because if they're getting too overwhelmed, they're not going to be able to display the kind of flexibility that we want.”
Having seen their kids lose it in the past, parents can typically tell when they’re getting close to a dysregulated state and reign it in. Even if a kid has an outburst, it’s possible to walk a child back by taking a pause and a couple of deep breaths along with them to model and scaffold self-regulation.
When parenting a particularly inflexible child — with all the frustrations the experience holds — it can be some consolation to remember that appropriately channeling some of their inflexibility may benefit them someday. They might grow up to be a tenacious adult who is the person in their workplace who sticks with challenges until they’re resolved or who overcomes adversity that would cause others to fold.