Why Is My Child So Inflexible??
How to help kids adapt when they can't have what they want, when they want it
Posted November 29, 2020 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
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 threw a huge fit because I picked him up from childcare instead of Grandma, who usually gets him at the end of the day.
Chelsea refused to take a bath because I turned on the water when she wanted to do it herself.
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 be a home for their action figures when his playmates had already decided it was going to be a restaurant.
If any of these scenarios sound 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 adapting to the countless events in life that we can’t predict or control. It also helps us work effectively in groups and develop healthy relationships because it enables us to take into consideration the perspectives and needs of others. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs” report, the following skills are among the 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)
The adaptability children need to be successful later on in life is learned from a young age. In early 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; accepting the job of snack-helper when he can't be the line-leader; or managing (i.e., not falling apart) when the teacher puts his gloves on before his coat when he usually does it the other way around. As children grow, 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 and a good partner at home.
Why is my child so inflexible?
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, those "dandelions" who are more adaptable by nature, are naturally more flexible. Children who are wired to be more sensitive—sometimes thought of as "orchids"1—tend to be more inflexible. They often have intense responses to seemingly minor stressors, such as throwing a fit when a parent turns off the light when the child wanted to do it, even though she hadn’t voiced this; or hurling a cereal bowl across the room because Dad put the Cheerios in the blue bowl, not his favorite red bowl. They get overwhelmed more easily than even-keeled kids because their strong emotions are hard to manage.
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 uncomfortable sensations. This naturally makes him feel more out of control than a child whose sensory system is better regulated and who is able to tolerate more input from the outside world. (Learn more about the impact of sensory processing on behavior.)
To cope with a world that can feel overwhelming, highly sensitive children come up with fixed ideas about how things should be to make daily life more manageable. Dictating where people will sit, how loud the music can be, what color bowl their cereal should come in, what clothes they will and will not wear, or how close the chicken can be to the carrots on their dinner plate—seemingly irrational demands—are all coping mechanisms highly sensitive children use to control their environment. They create rigid "rules" that help them organize and control their world. Some recent examples include: a child who won't go on any toilets outside her home after experiencing a loud, automatic flusher in a public restroom; a child who refuses to go to bed if his (as many as 5!) blankets aren't layered on him just so; and, a child who demanded her grandfather make a completely new sandwich because he cut it horizontally instead of vertically.
Inflexible kids can be 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 and 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.)
Helping inflexible children learn flexibility takes time and patience, but it is critically important for their overall functioning in this complex world. 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 and reinforce 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. Keep in mind: the world doesn't adapt to us; we have to adapt to the world.
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.
Teach perspective-taking. When you set limits appropriately, and don't give in to your child's unreasonable demands, you are helping your child see the world from other people's point of view and take into account their needs and feelings. For example: “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 outcome you want to reinforce--and not to pay attention to the behaviors designed to derail you and get you to adapt to his demands. Another example: "I know you want to wear the Batman cape. It's your favorite. But Sumi also wants a turn. We can use a timer to help you share. You can either choose another cape to wear when it's Sumi's turn, or you can just wait until it's your turn. That's your choice. But we are going to give her a turn because that's fair."
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!” "You wanted to turn on the water for the bath but mommy had already done it. You were disappointed but you were able to calm yourself and have a fun tub-time. And then you got to be the one who turned the water off. Being flexible is awesome!"
Point out the benefits to your child of being flexible. Here are some recent examples from families I work with:
Paloma loves active play, so her parents signed her up for a soccer program. But when they arrived for the first session, she refused to participate because she wanted to have control of the ball the entire time instead of taking turns. She insisted on quitting the program, but her dad, Richard, told her that they had committed to it and so they would keep going. He acknowledged that he would not and could not force her to participate, so, her choices would be to sit on the sidelines and watch, or join the group. By the second class, Paloma started to inch her way toward the group and by the third class, she was starting to participate. By the fifth class she was all-in and loving it. Richard gave her lots of kudos for taking a risk and pointed out to her how if she hadn’t been flexible, she never would have known how much she loved soccer and playing it with her friends. Now, when Paloma is digging in her heels, Richard helps her recall the soccer experience to remind her of her ability to be flexible and the benefits of accepting alternative options.
Matteo insists his parents place his five blankets on him in exactly the order and way he prescribes every night. Shockingly, he gets up minutes after they say “goodnight” to tell them he needs water, or another kiss, or any host of obfuscations to avoid going to bed. The blankets naturally get all messed up and the ritual starts all over again, with Matteo’s parents having to arrange them according to his specifications. After I thought this scenario through with mom and dad, we agreed that this process was reinforcing Matteo’s rigidity which was not good for him. So, his parents made a rule that they would put the blankets on one time. If he chose to get up after lights-out, he would need to get the blankets back on by himself. They had him practice how to do this—to empower him. The first few nights were difficult. But once Matteo saw the plan was firm, he often chose to stay in bed. If he did get up, he got comfortable arranging the blankets himself. This helped him see that he could survive having the blankets positioned on his body in ways that were not exactly as he was used to. This increased his ability to be flexible and nurtured his resilience.
Any time your child shows some flexibility, note it—even when it seems minor, such as accepting apple juice when his favorite, orange, isn’t available; or, when she tolerates her little sister choosing the bedtime book. Building on small successes can result in big changes over time.
*If the strategies above are not sufficient to help your child become more flexible, or if his rigidity is interfering in his ability to function effectively at home and school, I strongly encourage you to seek a consultation with a child development professional.
1. Boyce, W Thomas. The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive. New York: Knopf, 2019