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Inside: What is inflexible thinking in kids, what are the behaviors associated with it, and how can we help?

As kids grow, they are continually learning new things that make them better at solving problems and thinking things through.

Isn’t development a beautiful thing?

But not all kids grow and learn at the same pace. Some may have a hard time being flexible in their thinking, which can make things difficult for them.

(If you have a child who is a riding thinker, then you know exactly how challenging this trait can be.)

A kid who has trouble with flexible thinking might find it hard to adjust to new things or switch between tasks. These kids might also like sticking to routines and have trouble coming up with new ideas to solve problems.

This can sometimes make them act in a way that doesn’t make sense or make them get REALLY upset.

Today, we’re going to talk about inflexible thinking in kids. The good, the bad, and the ugly!

We will look at why inflexible thinking happens, behaviors that might arise because of it, and some rock-star strategies for parents and teachers!

Woohoo. Let’s get to it!

inflexible thinking in kids

Understanding Inflexible Thinking

To help kids who have trouble being flexible, we need first to understand what inflexible thinking means.

Inflexible thinking means having a hard time adjusting to new things or changes.

Kids with inflexible thinking might have trouble with the following:

  • Switching between different tasks or activities
  • Letting go of one idea and moving on to the next
  • Accepting changes in their routine or schedule
  • Coping with surprises or unexpected events
  • Understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings
Child with rigid behavior

Kids with autism, ADHD, anxiety, or depression often struggle with rigid thinking. (It’s important to talk to a doctor if you think your child is dealing with any of these issues.)

Many children struggle with executive functioning skills. These skills help with planning, organizing, and carrying out tasks.

If kids have a hard time with these skills, they might have trouble adapting to new situations and solving problems in a “flexible” way.

For example, a child struggling with working memory might not be able to hold multiple pieces of information in their head. This might result in trouble switching between tasks or changing their routine.

Understanding why kids have trouble being flexible can help us come up with good ways to help them.

In the next section, we’ll talk about behaviors that might show up in kids who have trouble being flexible.

inflexible thinking in children

Common Behaviors of Rigid Thinkers

Let’s take a closer look at common behaviors that rigid children might show:

Difficulty adjusting to change:

They may feel upset if something unexpected happens or if their usual routine changes.

Struggling to adapt to new situations:

They might have a hard time adjusting to new rules, environments, or situations. They may feel nervous or upset and may act rudely or defiantly.

Resistance to new ideas or perspectives:

They might not want to listen to new ideas or other people’s opinions if they are different from their own. Inflexible thinkers may argue a lot or be stubborn. They also may make irrational demands.

inflexible thinking in kids

Need for routines or rituals:

They may have specific routines or rituals that they always follow. They might get upset if they can’t follow them or if someone tries to change them.

Difficulty with transitions:

They may struggle when they have to change from one activity to another. For example, they might find it hard to stop playing and start eating or going to school.

Trouble with problem-solving:

Inflexible children may have a hard time finding solutions to problems that need creativity or a thinking outside-the-box perspective.

Difficulty with social interactions:

They might have trouble with social situations. This is especially true if the situation involves adapting to new situations or understanding other people’s feelings. They can struggle with understanding different perspectives. They may come across as bossy or difficult to be around, and they often need help learning social skills.

Explosive outbursts:

They may be very sensitive children and may not handle frustration well, which can lead to meltdowns or explosive behavior.

It’s important to remember that not all kids who think rigidly will show all these behaviors.

The type and severity of behaviors will differ from child to child. Some kids may have other issues, such as anxiety or sensory processing difficulties, that can make their rigid thinking worse.

inflexibility in kids

12 Strategies to promote flexible thinking in children

Can we help kids become better at solving problems?

Adapting to new situations?

Bouncing back from tough times?

Yes! We can. And it all starts with teaching them to be flexible thinkers.

Here are 12 small changes and strategies parents of children can use:

1. Model Flexibility

When kids see grown-ups trying new things, being okay with change, and being open to new ideas, they learn to do the same.

We can show kids how to be more flexible by saying things like, “That’s a great idea! I never thought of it that way before.”

Show kids a different way.

2. Encourage play and exploration

Encouraging kids to play and explore is super important! When kids engage in imaginative play and try new things, they learn so much from all their new experiences.

And this learning makes them more flexible!

I like to play board games and remind kids about the rules of the game. Because sometimes kids with rigid thinking want to control everything in the game.

3. Ask Open-Ended Questions

Ask questions that don’t have a single right answer! These types of questions are called “open-ended questions.”

Open-ended questions are like little secret weapons.

They help kids with rigidity struggles by prompting them to come up with their own ideas and think about things in different ways.

For example, instead of asking, “What color is the sky?” you could ask, “What do you think the sky might look like at night?”

4. Teach how to solve problems

You can show kids how to break problems down into smaller steps and come up with different solutions.

I also like to encourage kids to think about the good and bad parts of each solution.

I sometimes act out different situations and talk about different ways I could handle those situations. You could also role-play a time when the child’s inflexible thinking caused a problem and then offer solutions for how they could have responded differently.

These problem-solving strategies can all help kids discover new perspectives and unlock a part of their brains.

5. Practice being flexible

Give kids opportunities to practice being flexible! This might sound basic, but you can fake it till you make it.

Encouraging children to try new things is always a good idea and especially for our inflexible thinkers.

Exposing kids to different foods, activities, sports teams, outdoor adventures, or new routines can help them step outside the box.

For example, you can play a game where you order something new from a menu or try a new hobby each year.

6. Have a routine

Stepping outside our routine is sometimes important to practice flexibility. But it’s equally important to have a consistent routine. Consistent routines help kids feel safe and secure.

Clear expectations help kids feel stable, and this, in turn, helps them be more flexible when things change.

7. Create a visual schedule

A visual schedule can help children understand the sequence of their daily activities.

This helps prepare them for the transitions of the day.

You can use pictures or words to show each activity and add more details as your child gets used to the schedule.

If you’re looking for a great way to streamline your daily routine, check out our Routine Bundle, available in our shop! You’re going to love it.

Routine Charts for Kids

Not into charts? I feel you. That’s why we’ve got options for you – our adorable Routine Cards! These cards are a fun and easy way to help your little one navigate their day with ease. Check them out now!

Read social stories

Social stories are short stories that describe different situations and how to handle them.

They can help children understand other people’s perspectives, and this helps them become more flexible.

We have many fantastic social stories in our SEL Curriculum. Every unit includes numerous social stories on various topics.

Give positive feedback

Praising kids for trying new things and finding different solutions can help associate being flexible with positive feelings.

You can give them stickers or extra playtime as rewards.

Celebrate the small successes!

Oh, and get this Positive Phrases Poster for Kids totally free by entering your email here.

Seek professional support

Is your child’s inflexible thinking significantly impacting their daily life?

If so, it may be helpful to seek professional support from a mental health professional.

Don’t try to go it alone.

They can provide assessments, interventions, and strategies tailored to your child’s specific needs.

Help Children Manage Emotions

Children who struggle with inflexible thinking may have difficulty managing their emotions.

To help, you can teach them to identify and regulate their emotions.

And boy oh boy, are you in the right spot for social-emotional resources for kids.

We have SO many options in our shop—breathing exercises, feelings flashcards, worksheets, calming corner bundles, and social-emotional learning curriculums.

Promote Self-Awareness (A+ inflexible thinking in kids strategy)

One of the first things I like to do to help kids be less rigid is to help them become aware of their thinking patterns.

You can do this by helping kids identify when they are becoming stuck on a particular thought or idea or when they are having difficulty switching between tasks.

Once children are aware of their thinking patterns, they can begin to learn strategies to overcome those obsessive thoughts.

My favorite kit to help my child with self-awareness is the Mega Emotions Bundle. This is built on cognitive behavioral therapy and is used by over 20,000 counselors, teachers, and parents.

Why is my child so inflexible?

If your child is exhibiting inflexible thinking, it can be concerning, not to mention super frustrating!

I get it!

It’s important to keep in mind that every child is unique, and there can be many factors that are contributing.

Here are some reasons why your child might have inflexible thinking:

  • Growing up: Sometimes, children have inflexible thinking because they are still learning new things and figuring out how the world works. As they grow and learn more, they might become more flexible in their thinking. These new demands might get easier for them.
  • Trouble with thinking skills: Cognitive flexibility can be a problem when a child has trouble remembering things, changing their mind, or stopping themselves from doing something they shouldn’t.
  • Feeling anxious: Kids who feel worried or scared might find it hard to handle new situations or changes and may not want to try new things.
  • Certain disorders: Some conditions, like autism or ADHD, can make it harder for children to kick their rigid behavior.
  • Things at home: Children who have a lot of stress or problems at home might have inflexible thinking as a way to feel more in control of their lives.

If you’re worried about your child’s inflexible thinking, it’s a good idea to talk to a doctor or other healthcare provider. They can check if there might be any underlying issues and suggest ways to help.

inflexible thinking in kids

Final Thoughts on Inflexible thinking in children

Inflexible thinking can be a BIG challenge for many kids.

It can impact their ability to adapt to new situations, problem-solve, and develop resilience.

While inflexible thinking can be a normal part of a child’s development, sometimes it’s not.

Inflexible thinking in kids is linked with difficulties with executive functioning skills, anxiety, autism, and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Now we all want happy kids. So we want to help kids take a flexible approach to adapt to an ever-changing environment.

We want our kids to rise up to the demands life presents and get a more balanced view and better control of their emotions.

Fortunately, small steps can help us get there, and we’ve listed so many effective ways we can help!

What are you most excited to try?

What you Should Do Next…

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