Structure and predictability play important roles in our lives, allowing us to anticipate, plan, and prepare for what’s coming. A big part of the way we help young children make sense of the world is by using routines, boundaries, and clear expectations. Knowing what to expect and when to expect it can bring comfort and help kids feel secure. 

Flexible thinking or cognitive flexibility is the ability to see things from a different perspective, change course, or be open to a new idea or experience. Flexible thought adds balance to the routine and structure of our lives, allowing us to be creative, try new things, build confidence, manage disappointment, and navigate the world more effectively. It encourages us to consider options and opportunities before we choose how to react. Kids who develop flexible thoughts are more confident in their ability to navigate new situations, willing to take healthy risks, and more likely to reach out when they need support. How can we balance the structure, predictability, and rules that are so important for kids with developing cognitive flexibility? As with most things, it’s not an either-or situation, and flexible thought is all about noticing shades of gray. It’s an in-the-moment practice, but there are ways we can lay the groundwork.

At the most basic level, we can help kids develop an emotional vocabulary, a framework for them to name and express their feelings. Ask them questions about their experiences, their reactions, and how they make decisions. They’re the experts on their internal state, and it’s up to you to listen. Kids take a lot of their cues about emotional expression from the adults in their lives, so looking at the ways that you express emotion may be helpful, too.

When they talk to you about something important to them, really tune in and listen. Send them every signal that what they are saying to you matters, and they will be much more likely to share more with you, the good stuff and the hard stuff, and feel safe exploring different points of view. Ask questions and be curious. 

Allow kids the freedom to take age-appropriate risks, make mistakes, and be wrong. Acknowledge when you make mistakes, and model how you work on repairing a connection or relationship when you’ve been wrong.  Share what you’ve learned from your experiences.

Shake up your routine a little, add some spontaneity and surprise. Walking home a different way and talking about what you see on your route? Dessert before dinner? Playing a new game or puzzle? Give it a go! The most important part is your supportive attunement to your child. Your attention can give them the confidence to take risks, and experiment. Give them time and space to figure things out. Supporting kids as they develop and learn to trust their instincts is invaluable. 

Consider your own internal compass. When things are hard or complicated, what guides you? Talk to the children in your life about what’s important to you, what your beliefs are, and how you use them to navigate unfamiliar situations. What do you do when you don’t know what to do? 

Teach by example. Take care of yourself, and be overt about how you do it! “I’m really upset, so I’m going to take a walk.” “It’s been a really hard week, I’m going to text with my friend and relax.” Notice the things that bring you contentment and pleasure, and mention them. Is it a vivid sunset or something silly a coworker said? A moment of connection with your child? It’s easier to be flexible when we come from a place of feeling mentally, physically, and emotionally well. Get support when you need it, from a trusted friend, family member, or a professional.

By helping children develop flexible thought we can support their ongoing mental wellness and ability to adapt to their ever-changing world.

Megan Becker, LMFT is the Director of Inpatient Social Work at the Brattleboro Retreat.