Flexibility in Teens

Flexibility in teens refers to the ability to shift fluidly between activities and problem-solving approaches. Flexible people do not insist on things going exactly as planned. As a result, flexible people tend to be well-adjusted and less anxious.

Flexibility can be understood in a few different contexts. It helps us adapt and manage a variety of situations and expectations. Flexibility can be important in problem-solving, in routines, and in social interaction and relationships.

Want help? Take a quick video course on emotional regulation in teens led by child psychologist Dr. Anna Kroncke.

Symptoms of Inflexibility

Inflexibility can pose challenges for a teenager in school, at home, and in social settings.

Rigidity is often called cognitive inflexibility or rigid thinking patterns. Rigid kids and teens may frustrate an adult easily because they do not readily compromise. Even when provided choices and only given necessary directives, a rigid child may still refuse. They may approach most situations with a “my way or the highway” attitude.

Some teenagers are chronically inflexible in their thinking. Any subtle change to the routine ends up in an earthquake-style meltdown. This unyielding style could lead to aggressive behavior that may be unintentional because they can feel overwhelmed by not being in control of the situation.

Some teens may be inflexible in all areas of life, and others may be inflexible in one context and not in another. Teens who are struggling significantly with flexibility may have anxiety or Autism Spectrum symptoms.

How to Help Flexibility Challenges in Problem-Solving

Consider their problem-solving skills

Some teenagers get stuck. They see a task from only one angle, failing to think flexibly about how to solve the problem.

Can a teenager explore different approaches and consider perspectives from the teacher/ classmates/ group work partners to solve a novel problem?

Teach helpful strategies

These teens may need to be taught specific strategies to try at least 3 ideas for solving a problem.

Another strategy is for the teen to teach another student how to solve the problem, and then that student teaches the teen a different way to solve it. They take turns being a teacher and being a learner.

How to Help with Flexibility Challenges in Routine

Some teens have challenges in their flexibility related to their routines.

An important consideration for families who have chronically inflexible children is parenting style. Often, children who are easily frustrated and lose their temper are challenging to parent effectively. You might catch yourself saying, “It shouldn’t have to be this hard. Why does everything have to be a battle?”

One of our favorite tips is a hard one to implement. It is, ‘Resist the urge to become just as rigid as your child.’ Provide warnings, timers, and countdowns to signal a change in the activity. Stick to your plan. If your child tantrums over a shift in schedule, calmly wait for this behavior to end without engaging in a power struggle. It can take a long time to see a turnaround in your child’s rigid behavior, even when you do so.

“As a parent, do not expect immediate change or a spontaneous shift to occur in your child’s behavior. Rather, take the long view. Ask yourself, what skills am I trying to teach here?”

You may have many times when parenting your stubborn child that you have to consider how important this particular choice is to you. [1] For example, maybe your child constantly refuses to wear a coat on a cold day.

Ask yourself, “can I let this one go?” Make sure you consider how this choice is affecting you personally. Are you the one who will be embarrassed that your child wore a flimsy t-shirt on a snow day? If that’s the case, there may be times that you can detach from your child’s behaviors and give yourself and your child a chance to be more flexible.

Use the basket case approach

At times, it may be that you cannot let the behavior go, but you can take a break. For example, if the child is refusing homework or chores, you may ask yourself, “Would it be more productive if I walk away for a bit?” or “Can I generously offer my child or teen a break while I take a break as well?”

Ross Greene offers an excellent resource for learning to ‘pick your battles’ in the Explosive Child. He teaches you how to be a ‘basket case,’ which means you put your priorities into three baskets.

Basket A is a small basket for non-negotiables.

Basket B is for important issues that you would be willing to negotiate with your child or teen. In this case, you would be modeling, for your child, a rational and calm decision-making approach that results in a win-win solution.

Basket C is the ‘forget-about-it’ basket.

This approach is referred to as downshifting. As the parent, you demonstrate for your child how to calm down and think rationally about what to do.

This concern may be evident at home when you have a teenager who must always follow the same routine after school.

For example, they must always do their math homework at the kitchen table, have a snack, and then take a break.

If you have a doctor’s appointment or a school program, this change is met with stress and sometimes refusal because the schedule is changing.

Address flexibility challenges at school

Inflexibility in routines and schedules can also cause challenges at school if changes occur. For example, an assembly, a fire drill, or a substitute teacher may alter the flow of the day, the routine, and the expectations.

These changes can cause frustration and stress in a teenager who is inflexible.

At school, it can be possible to create choices for a student who struggles in these situations. Allow a student to select preferred seating at an assembly or to leave the class early for a fire drill. Provide notice that the teacher is out sick, and have the student choose to stay in the classroom or take his reading to the library.

Provide choices

A very inflexible teenager may need choices built into the day when schedule changes or other differences in the day may provoke anxiety.

Some schools will be accommodating no matter what. Others may require a Section 504 plan noting the presence of a disability, like anxiety or autism, to provide accommodations for these changes in routine.

How to Help Flexibility Challenges in Social Interactions and Relationships

Some teens struggle with being flexible in their social interactions and relationships.

An inflexible teenager may feel misunderstood by a certain teacher and may refuse to work on the relationship. Some teenagers struggle to see the perspective of others and to take the time to understand differences of opinion. Teens who are inflexible in relationships tend to feel they are always right.

Teenagers with autism especially need to feel like a teacher understands and respects their point of view. Otherwise, they often discount a teacher and don’t try to learn from them. These teens may also have conflicts with others who have differing opinions and perspectives.

Teach life lessons

Flexibility to be able to listen to teachers, classmates, friends, and parents and consider other perspectives and opinions helps build relationships. Helping teenagers see the value in hearing all sides of an issue will improve their ability to build relationships.

If your teenager struggles significantly with social interactions and relationships, a counselor or school psychologist-led social group may be helpful. Teenagers must practice being collaborative and learning from each other; learning social flexibility is an important life lesson.

If your teenager has considerable difficulty with any or all aspects of flexibility, try some of these strategies.

Your Next Step

Take a quick assessment on app.cadey.co to understand your child’s needs. We are pioneering new ground in child psychology. Instead of waiting months or years, you can help your child today. To get started on life-changing interventions, visit courses.cadey.co.

Additional Resources for Flexibility in Teens

The Cadey Resource Library contains these articles related to flexibility.