If you know any children (and I’m guessing you know at least one fairly well), you may not think of them as a particularly adaptable subset of our species.
When it comes to wanting their own way, kids have a je ne sais quoi that can put even the most self-centered adults to shame. Whether it’s something minor (maybe your little wants to go to the park after it’s dark outside) or a real challenge they’re facing (perhaps Mom and Dad are splitting up), children might not be naturally equipped to adjust to a less-than-ideal situation.
But you can encourage adaptability in your offspring. Maybe they won’t perfectly adapt all the time (and sometimes they shouldn’t have to), but you can have more days when they go with the flow of life.
Provide a sympathetic ear for your children
Adaptability: the ability to be cool with a circumstance you may not have chosen, to find the good things in it and keep on keeping on. (Definition courtesy of the dictionary in my head.) Obviously, we wish our kids didn’t have to adapt to things like social distancing and mask wearing. But such is the world right now. And there are a few things a child needs in order to develop or enhance adaptability to those kinds of changes.
For example, they need a caring, responsive adult in their life, according to Jacqueline Hood, Ph.D., a child psychologist whose office is in Plano. You probably have that covered, right? So what should that caring adult do?
“One of the most important things for parents to do is to listen to children—to not be dismissive when the child is concerned about a transition or challenge,” explains Hood. “You don’t just say, ‘Oh, it’s fine; everything is going to be OK.’ Acknowledge what the child is going through.”
Collin County dad Dave Beitchman identified “listening” as the number one thing his children—Noah, 6, and Jordan, 10—want when a situation is less than ideal. “When our boys are struggling with something outside of our home, they almost always want Mom and Dad to be a sympathetic ear,” he says. “Often just listening to them helps them feel better.”
But Beitchman won’t hover when his sons need to work through something independently. “If the conflict is with one another or with one of us, the boys usually want time and space to themselves,” he says. “Legos and Harry Potter books usually help them process emotions on their own.”
Model flexibility for your kids
Some kids are naturally better at overcoming negative feelings and carrying on with life than others. “In my experience as a pediatrician and also as a mom, I definitely feel some kids are more flexible than others innately,” says Dr. Mansi Lalwani, a pediatrician with Baylor Scott & White Family Health Center – Mesquite. “I think we as parents need to empower and enrich kids through a variety of life experiences to be more adaptable.”
Darci, a Carrollton mom, says her 11-year-old twins have grown a sense of grit through a variety of activities. (Darci asked us to omit her last name for privacy.) There’s ranching in Montana, where the twins’ grandparents live. “Ranching is all about having to get up every morning and not complaining about the weather but clenching your teeth and getting work done. I believe the ‘rancher’s life’ has given them confidence in working hard, even if the work is uncomfortable or uninteresting.”
But Darci’s kids don’t have to be on the open range to flex their ability to adapt. Even taekwondo lessons here at home help build that skill. “You will not pass every belt testing, and you will go back to practice where your peers may have passed to the next level. You have to be happy for their success and persevere to hit your long-term goal,” Darci notes.
Lalwani recommends that kids get involved with different peer groups (even if it’s virtually), so they can get used to dealing with all kinds of people, with all kinds of temperaments. And here’s something else that’s important: As you go through various experiences and interact with people, demonstrate the “roll with it” attitude you’d like to see in your kids. “If you transition through life situations well by exhibiting flexibility, then it will help the kids do the same when faced with difficulties,” Lalwani shares.
Help kids control what they can
Life isn’t just about dealing with things you’d rather not endure. We humans are blessed with a keen ability to problem-solve. So if a situation is truly challenging to your child, and they are suffering, ask yourself: What can we do to make this better?
That’s exactly what Beitchman and his wife did when they saw that virtual school wasn’t working for their family. “Our boys adapted well to virtual learning in the spring when they had the flexibility to complete assignments on their own time and at their own pace,” Beitchman says. “This fall, however, students were asked to log in to virtual classes multiple times throughout the day. Using a traditional school schedule while being schooled at home seemed very rigid for the boys, and the pace lagged quite a bit. It was difficult for our boys to remain engaged with this new approach, and we decided to homeschool this year instead.”
You also can encourage your children to be the problem-solvers. “Help them by giving them information about the new situation and then allow them to be resourceful to come up with solutions to those difficulties,” suggests Lalwani.
But when there’s not a choice, when your kids truly have to soldier through disappointment and frustration, there are a number of ways to help them deal with it. “Mindfulness skills are really important in teaching self-regulation,” says Hood. “That’s something that really takes everyday practice, teaching your child to listen to their inner monologue: What is my voice saying about this situation? Do I have a balanced perspective?”
She adds that mindfulness can be cultivated by slowing down. “For example, sitting outside and listening to the breeze rustling the trees, or visualizing a perfect place—just taking moments together as a family.”
In addition, you can give kids control in other areas to help them better handle life’s tougher situations. “Let them have control over their environment,” Hood suggests. “Ask them, ‘Where do you want to put your bed? Where do you want to put your desk? What do you want to put on your wall?’ Small things that they can feel in control of go a long way.”
General wellness also better equips kids to regulate their feelings and manage undesirable situations. That means maintaining a good sleep schedule, eating nutritious meals and snacks, and staying active. “When the pandemic started, the hardest part was getting the kids started on the right foot in the morning,” says Darci. “We found that getting up at the usual time and immediately going for a 10- or 15-minute run around the block helped kick-start the day for all of us.”
The key is doing all these things consistently, not just when a particularly tough circumstance—a life-upending pandemic, for instance—rears its head. “Coping skills aren’t built in a few months,” points out Hood. “They are built over a lifetime.”
Here are a few books that can support kids in managing frustration and distressing situations.
- B is for Breathe: The ABCs of Coping with Fussy and Frustrating Feelings by Melissa Munro Boyd
- Cool Down and Work Through Anger by Cheri J. Meiners
- Llama Llama Mad at Mama by Anna Dewdney
- Grumpy Monkey by Suzanne Lang
- A Feel Better Book for Little Tempers by Holly Brochmann and Leah Bowen
Image courtesy of iStock.