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How You Can Help Your Child Adapt to Change

Six evidence-based ways to improve your child’s flexibility and adaptability.

Key points

  • Young children are often rigid, inflexible, or resistant to change for no clear reason.
  • Rigidity decreases as children develop the ability to cope with new and/or unpredictable situations.
  • Parents can help children to adapt to change by using evidence-based strategies to increase a child's flexibility.

Rigidity, inflexibility, and/or a resistance to change are common in young children. For example, your child may insist on using the same plate and cup at every meal with no clear reason for this preference or they may insist that you go through their bedtime routine in the exact same way every night. Failing to honor their specific request or deviating from their preferred routine may result in emotional meltdowns or challenging behavior that seems out of proportion given the situation.

As children’s brains develop (particularly the prefrontal cortex), they typically gain the cognitive flexibility and emotional regulation skills to cope with unwanted changes in their environment. Their rigidity will then only be remembered through cute anecdotes of their toddlerhood (that are somehow funny only in retrospect). Still, although it may be developmentally normal, rigid or inflexible behavior in children can be frustrating and disruptive for families. So what are some evidence-based strategies to address your child’s rigidity or resistance to change?

1. Prepare your child for any different or uncertain situations by telling them exactly what to expect. Use visual aids to help (such as a book that you made or purchased or even YouTube videos that depict the situation).

2. Although it is important to validate and accept your child’s rigidity, you do not want to accommodate it by avoiding any situations that make your child uncomfortable. Instead, you want to gradually and incrementally introduce changes into their day, starting with those that would be least upsetting and building up to more significant changes. These changes should be communicated to your child before they happen. For example, if the family will only eat one meal for dinner, alter the meal one ingredient at a time, and warn them about any menu changes in advance.

3. Teach your child some coping skills to manage their frustration and anxiety related to rigidity. For example, a younger child could be encouraged to do some deep breathing or go to a “calm down” space. If your child is older, you could help them challenge their own thinking and see the “bigger picture." For example, help them learn to ask themselves whether they will still be upset about this change one week from today.

4. Help your child to develop a “Plan A” and “Plan B” for any uncertain situation and discuss in advance how they will manage their frustration and disappointment when “Plan A” does not work out.

5. Teach your child the concept of their brain feeling “stuck” and model how you would cope with feeling “stuck” yourself. For example, you could say “I can’t stop feeling angry at myself that I burned dinner tonight. I must be feeling 'stuck.' I’m going to take some deep breaths and then remember that everyone makes mistakes and that it was no big deal since we were able to order pizza.”

6. Finally, remember that a tendency to be more rigid is also associated with many important strengths, such as an ability to pay attention to minor details and to focus on one topic for an extended period of time. Although it can be frustrating at the time, it may eventually help your child to achieve their goals.

If your child’s rigidity or resistance to change is so severe that it causes disruptions to their learning, social relationships, or activities of daily living or significantly alters your family’s functioning on a regular basis, consult with a mental health professional. For some children, such as those with autism spectrum disorder, an anxiety disorder, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), rigidity may be more pronounced and persist well beyond the preschool years. For these children, behavioral therapy may be necessary in order to help them and the family cope with new or unpredictable situations.

More from Cara Goodwin, Ph.D.
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