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Helping Kids With Flexible Thinking

How flexible thinking can help children handle uncertainty and change

Writer: Rae Jacobson

en Español

Dealing with uncertainty is challenging for all of us — bouncing back from disappointment, going with the flow when plans change unexpectedly, getting comfortable with new realities.

Tolerating uncertainy was especially exhausting during the pandemic, when all our routines and expectations were upset. But many of the skills we were forced to practice rely on a key executive function called flexible thinking. It’s a skill with lifelong benefits but it’s one that many kids (and many adults) often struggle to learn.

What is flexible thinking?

Flexible thinking is the ability to think about things in a new or different way. It helps us deal with uncertainty, solve problems, adjust to changes, and incorporate new information into our plans and ideas. Flexible thinking is also a key aspect of self-regulation and handling big emotions. When kids (and, let’s get real, parents, too) are able to take a flexible approach to a problem they’re less likely to fall apart when things don’t go according to plan.

Kids who can think flexibly are more adaptable and less likely to see setbacks as unfixable disasters. For example, if a trip to see Grandma has to be cancelled, a child who can’t think flexibly might break down (“Now we’ll NEVER get to see Grandma!!!”) and be unable to see a way out of their disappointment. A child who can think flexibly will also feel disappointed, but they are likely to be more open when you offer alternate solutions: “I know you’re really sad that we can’t see Grandma. I am too. What if we FaceTime her tonight and bake cookies together?”

How to help kids with flexible thinking

So what can parents do to help kids get better at thinking flexibly?

Validate emotions

Managing disappointment or uncertainty is hard. And that’s okay. It’s important to validate kids’ feelings, no matter how outsized or confusing they may be, before trying to move on. “I see how sad you are to miss your friend’s birthday party when we’re away. It’s really hard.” When kids feel heard and understood they’re less likely to dwell on the negative emotion and more able to move on to finding a solution.

Get them involved

But remember, getting from frustration or sadness to acceptance and action takes time. Kids may not respond as quickly you’d like them to. When that happens, be patient and encourage kids to try flexible thinking to help manage distress and build resilience. “I can see you’re still upset about missing the birthday party, I wonder if there’s anything that might help? Maybe we could make a birthday video to share with them?”

When kids are ready, invite them to help you come up with ideas for how to manage uncertainty as well as difficult changes. For example: “Okay. I’m really excited to go to the pool tomorrow, but there’s a chance it might rain. Let’s come up with some awesome ideas for what else we can do if that happens.” When kids feel like part of the team, they’ll have a greater sense of control and get the chance to practice their flexible thinking skills.

Model flexibility

Kids look to parents for cues on how to behave. Modeling healthy coping skills will help you, and your child, develop better habits and feel less overwhelmed when things don’t go as expected.

Speaking your thoughts aloud as you solve a problem is a great way to do this. For example, if an important friend can’t come to your child’s dance performance, let your child see you processing the change in a healthy way: “Aw, that’s disappointing. I know! I bet there will be a video we can share with them.” When your child sees you navigate changes or surprises in a reasonable, solution-focused way, they’ll be more likely to do the same.

It’s also important to let kids see you cope when there’s not an immediate solution to be had. For example, if you are all waiting to see if a beloved relative will recover from an illness, saying “Right now, we just don’t know. It’s frustrating and scary, but let’s do something to take our minds off it. How about a bike ride? ” shows kids that in an uncertain situation you don’t have to assume the worst.

Get help if they (or you) need it

Flexible thinking can be very hard to practice if a child is experiencing mental health issues like anxiety or depression or your family has recently experienced a traumatic event like the loss of a loved one, job, or home.

When a family is under stress, new uncertainty may trigger difficult emotions. If you notice that your child is unusually inflexible, upset, anxious, or sad, it may be a sign that they are struggling with a mental health issue. Talk to your child about how they’re feeling, and reach out to a pediatrician, clinician, or school guidance who can help.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is flexible thinking?

Flexible thinking is the ability to think about things in a new or different way. It is also an important part of self-regulation and handling big emotions. When kids can think flexibly about a problem, they’re less likely to fall apart if things don’t go according to plan.

What are some examples of flexible thinking?

Some examples of flexible thinking include bouncing back from disappointment, going with the flow when plans change, getting comfortable with change, and managing uncertainty.

How can you help kids with flexible thinking?

You can help kids by modeling flexible thinking. Let kids see you work through problems. When your child sees you handle changes in a reasonable way, they’ll be more likely to do the same.

This article was last reviewed or updated on March 8, 2024.