What to Do When Your Child Struggles with Inflexible Thinking

Child crying and shouting with tantrum laying on the floor at home.

Our children are growing and developing all the time. They typically learn their routines from practice and sometimes when those practices need to change or if they are surprised by something new they have an intense emotional response. That can take the shape of acting out, anger or a meltdown. It is a very frustrating moment for parents and for children.

Rather than seeing this behavior as rebellion or defiance, it is probably more a part of their inability to think flexibly. They have not yet developed that brain capacity, so the complex skill of adaptability is not able to process the event before them.

In a recent article in A Fine Parent, Maria Weir addresses this issue with some very helpful observations and strategies for children who have yet attained the ability to perform flexible thinking. Here is an excerpt from this article:

Kids who throw epic meltdowns when plans change or when something isn’t as expected aren’t misbehaving; they just haven’t yet developed a specific skill in their executive functioning toolkit.

Executive functioning is a set of mental skills that develop in the part of our brain responsible for complex thinking, planning and organizing; this includes working memory, the ability to multitask, and having self-control.

These skills are essential in successfully running through our day: we remember where we put our car keys or homework, we can follow directions, stay on task emptying the dishwasher, and refrain from acting out in frustration.

Sweet blond child boy crying outdoors. Little son pulls the handles to mom.

Cognitive flexibility is another core aspect of executive functioning. Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to adapt our behavior and thinking to transitions, roadblocks, or when there is a disconnect between our expectations and reality.

She goes on to identify five helpful strategies to help children (and parents) with these difficult moments. These strategies are very important for parents and caregivers and should be in our toolbox of helpful parenting ideas and practices. Again, here is the link to this important article:

Using these tools can make a huge difference in the perspective of parents and children. They can also help us all get through these moments with a clear strategy and better compassion for our children as they grow through the changes and development needed to face in life.

Gerry Vassar


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