Teaching Your Inflexible Child Flexibility

imagesWhat are your three main goals when interacting with your inflexible child? To get your child (A) to obey, (B) to learn, and (C) to succeed.

Some people mistakenly think that (A) maintaining obedience and adult authority is the primary goal. However, once we realize that the inflexible child misbehaves not out of bad will, but rather poor skill, we understand that enforcing adult authority is not the primary way to reach the child.

Rather, our primary goal is (B) to teach our child the skills of flexibility and frustration tolerance. This goes to the root of the problem and eventually avoids recurring situations. (Studies show that without this specialized training, these negative patterns usually continue throughout life.)

In order to achieve this goal, we need to aim for (C) setting the stage for the child’s success by creating a user-friendly environment. Accepting and adapting to the child’s limitations reduces his frustration levels and conserves his energy for the more important issues.

Still, all three goals are important objectives which must be mastered and implemented at different times, for different situations.

Try grouping all your child’s behaviors into three baskets. Basket A holds all the non-negotiable behaviors that are worth the meltdown price. When your child displays these behaviors, you aim for Goal (A): maintaining adult authority. Basket B is for behaviors that are important, but not important enough that they call for a tantrum. In these situations, you turn to Goal (B): teaching your child flexibility and frustration tolerance. Basket C is for behaviors that are not even worth mentioning anymore. These call for Goal (C): accepting your child’s limitations, so he can succeed.

Now, let’s take a closer look inside each basket.

Basket A: Basket A situations do not teach your child how to think during frustration, but rather reinforce your parental authority. Safety is an example of a Basket A case. What else is in Basket A? Something that passes the “Basket A Litmus Test.”

1. The issue is “worth” the tantrum

2. Your child is capable of following through on a fairly consistent basis

3. You are willing and able to enforce it.

As soon as you say “No,” “You must not,” “This is non-negotiable,” your child knows that you’re in Basket A.

Of course, you try to create a user-friendly environment (Basket C) and remove many stumbling blocks, so that Basket A situations don’t crop up too often. You also limit Basket A to behaviors that truly pass the litmus test, rather than how much you wish the behavior would qualify. You want to limit the amount of Basket A cases, because reducing meltdowns is a very high priority in parenting. This preserves your relationship and saves your clout for the most important issues at hand.

Limiting your absolute no’s is not shortchanging your parental power, but exchanging it for a more productive power.

Basket B: Basket B is the most important basket, because its practical lessons are so far-reaching and life-altering. In Basket B, you reach out to the child standing out the crossroads, just as his brain is about to lock and imprison him into meltdown mode. At this twilight moment, just before his logic becomes paralyzed, you grab onto him and help him think logically. You teach him to stay calm, despite the conflict, and think logically, despite his raging emotions.

How? By inviting him to brainstorm together with you. Your child is lacking frustration tolerance and flexibility skills. Basket B’s open respectful dialogue teaches him an appropriate way to express frustration, while problem-solving for a mutually-beneficial solution trains him to become more flexible.

Understandably, your child, who has until now exploded to every slight irregularity will not switch modes and become a great negotiator. However, when you model positive problem-solving and clearly outline acceptable modes of communication (speak in a reasonable tone of voice, be respectful…,) you teach him how to express himself in a healthier way. You may want to practice a trial run with your child during calmer moments when your child is more coherent. Also, during initial problem-solving sessions, you might need to jumpstart him with several suggestions until he learns how to view a situation in a multi-dimensional way.

If you think that discussion and negotiation compromise your parental authority, think again. This is where your child learns about give-and-take, expressing frustration in a respectful way, taking another’s perspective, viewing situations multi-dimensionally and working cooperatively to find mutually-satisfactory solutions.

How do you teach your child? By modeling the good behaviors. You may want to practice with your child at calmer moments and initially jumpstart your child by providing suggestions.

How does your child know you’re in Basket B? Firstly, you empathize. “I know you are frustrated about this.” When you accept your child’s feelings, your child perceives you as an advocate, rather than an adversary. Then, you invite him to problem-solve with you by saying something like, “Let’s work this out together.”  You may need to clarify things by summarizing the disagreement, so you are all on the same page. “John, you want to play Clics, which is a great idea, and your sister wants to play outside, also a great idea. Let’s think how we can work this out.” At times, when appropriate, you can even invite siblings to the brainstorming sessions – provided that they can contribute in a respectful manner.

Basket B is hard work. And it’s not necessarily guaranteed success at first try. Still, each problem-solving session is one more lesson in frustration-tolerance and flexibility, and hopefully, one step closer to a healthier lifelong attitude.

Basket C: Basket C is the fullest basket – and it’s stuffed with behaviors that you are going to ignore, at least for now. There are things that you are not even going to mention, such as picky eating habits or sloppy bedrooms. And there are situations you will avoid at all costs, such as overcrowded stores and late nights-out. This is because Basket C accepts your child for who he is right now, so that he can experience success despite his limitations.

Is Basket C about defeat? Depends. If you decided that a behavior is not worth the sweat and never mentioned anything about it, then you have willfully ignored it; that’s control. If, however, your child tantrumed so long and hard over a Basket A behavior that you caved in, then you’ve lost a battle.

So, think long and hard before making your classifications. After all, before the action starts, you pull the strings. But once you set the ball rolling, “No! That is not allowed,” “That must be frustrating. How can we figure out a way to work it out?” or silence, you have done yours and must hope that your child is capable of living up to your expectations.

The good part of the Basket approach is that now, you are the primary decision-maker over whether or not a tantrum will ensue. You no longer fear the possibility of meltdowns. You calmly navigate through each situation, confident that you will know how to respond in any situation. This assured calmness transfers to your child and enforces your authority and your child’s peace of mind.

To summarize, with the Basket approach, you stand in for the rational part of your child’s brain just as the thoughts are about to blur, and you turn the dial however you see fit. You help the child walk over the crossroads, giving him the skills he has yet to master. You teach him to think logically while frustrated, identify the frustration’s trigger, and explore various options and their potential outcomes. You train him to see the “big picture,” to delay gratification and to become more flexible.

Will you always have to do this? Hopefully not. With enough practice, you aim to hand the reigns over to your child one day.  But for today, you aim for greater skill, rather than only greater submission.

Basket-Weavers, Beware!

  • Watch your wording carefully, so that your child knows which basket you’re in. Some parents mistakenly use Basket A terminology when they would like to be in Baskets B or C, or vice versa. Then, your child is not on the same playing field as you. You wonder why he’s throwing a fit, but fail to realize that you told him that you will not back down on this one.
  • Don’t under do Basket B by overdoing Basket C and ignoring too many behaviors. Basket B is your main lesson plan book! You want plenty of practice examples to improve your child’s skills.
  • Do not use Basket B as a last resort. If you want to give your child brainstorming power, start with it right away – when it’s your decision to make and your child has not yet entered tantrum brain lock stage.  When brainstorming is an afterthought, your child feels that he just earned a concession over here.
  • Make sure you really are open to new suggestions. Model flexibility and compromise.
  • Sometimes, you also may do Basket B on general situations that are not running smoothly, such as dinner table behavior or bedtime routines, that you would like to brainstorm. Broach these scenarios at a calm time and problem-solve for the future.

SIDEBAR: When a child is lacking the necessary skills to meet a situation’s cognitive demands, he cannot respond adaptively. This causes challenging episodes. To avoid these situations, empower your child with skills.


9 responses

  1. Wow! This sure sounds like some info I could use! I’m at my wits end dealing with my 3 year old. I would love to implement these ideas – hope it works. Thanks for posting such useful info!

    1. I’m happy to be able to help you out! Good luck and I hope you see success!

  2. Thank you for this very informative post. This will come in handy with my four-year-old and his erratic mood swings. 🙂

    1. Oh great! I hope you see results!

  3. Very informative post! Hugs ( hopping over from VB)

    1. Thanks Katherine! I just checked out your blog and it’s lovely! I’m your newest follower!

  4. This is a great “how to” which we all need at times…often many times. My favorite part is the teaching by example (modeling good behaviors). They mimic our actions, reactions and absorb our energy, so every response we give them counts.

    1. Yes, very true. At times I don’t even realize the things I do until my kids start copying me!

  5. Thank you for these suggestions. It is amazing what you can teach your child using while having fun. My daughter used to use play therapy to learn sign language when she was a baby.

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