Being OK with Change: How to Fortify Your Child’s Cognitive Flexibility
New and unfamiliar situations are uncomfortable for many children with ADHD. In a year of relentless change, how can you help your child adapt? By shoring up their cognitive flexibility, which may help them navigate uncertainty and better manage negative emotions. Here’s how.
Cognitive flexibility — the ability to adapt easily to new and unexpected conditions — is difficult for many children (and adults) with ADHD. For our kids, even the smallest changes to everyday routines can quickly become huge challenges. A shift in plans, a favorite outfit in the wash, chicken for dinner instead of hotdogs — these can all result in extreme emotional upset for everyone involved.
2020 is, of course, a year of drastic changes. The pandemic has changed where, when, and how kids learn, how they socialize and play, and who they see daily. Amid all these disruptions, our kids are understandably more frustrated and dysregulated than ever.
But just as an athlete builds muscle, our children can learn to strengthen this critical cognitive flexibility skill, helping them build up resilience and “roll with the punches” as this era of uncertainty stretches on.
5 Ways to Build Cognitive Flexibility
1. Demonstrate Empathy
While we often want to reason with our children when they are angry or upset, doing so in the heat of the moment rarely works. A child’s brain or, more exactly, the pre-frontal cortex where logical thinking happens is too “hot” when under stress; it needs to cool down before a child can listen.
When your child is upset, your first reaction should be empathy. A hug or smile and a simple, “Wow, that must be upsetting” or “I’m so sorry that happened” offers connection with your child and allows them the space to calm down.
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2. Explain Cognitive Flexibility
When your child’s emotions have cooled, find a good time to talk, in age-appropriate language, about how hard it can be for young brains to be flexible. Explain that their brain is growing and learning new skills, just like they do in school or on a sports team. Working on cognitive flexibility will take effort and practice — like an athlete training for a sport — but it will pay off in the end, and you are there to help.
3. Help Them Name Their Emotions
When kids are caught in the mindset of inflexibility, it can bring on powerful negative emotions. Having them name what they’re feeling can ultimately help them become flexible around routines and habits.
If there is a triggering incident, wait for your child’s emotions to cool, but not so long that the event itself is forgotten. Then, sit down with them and help them name the “bad” feelings (frustration, anger, sadness) they felt when they couldn’t switch gears or change their mindset. If possible, have them identify where in the body that emotion was felt most strongly.
With this activity, steer clear of judgement statements, such as “My teacher made me angry” or “He made me sad.” You should only aim for your child to name the emotion in the body as it arises.
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Encourage your child to name emotions aloud often, and offer ways to break out of the inflexibility cycle: “That must have been really frustrating when you couldn’t find your homework assignment online. I totally understand. Would you like help to find a solution to this?”
Model this naming technique yourself whenever possible: “I’m feeling really sad that we can’t go to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving this year. It really hurts right now. But I’m looking forward to our family feast instead.”
By bringing the language of flexibility and felt emotions into everyday family conversation, kids can absorb these skills and make them their own.
4. Preview and Practice
If faced with an impending disruption — like switching to online school from in-person learning, accessing schoolwork on a new digital platform, or a different morning routine — preview the change and talk through what may happen with your child.
Brainstorming and planning around change strengthens cognitive flexibility; it shows your child that they can get through even the toughest of situations.
5. Provide Incentives and Rewards
Setting up meaningful incentives for children to work toward while building their cognitive flexibility muscle can go a long way in keeping them on the path to resiliency.
Keep a log or diary of each success, for example, and celebrate with small rewards, such as an extra book or reading time at bedtime or a favorite dessert. Knowing that there’s a reward on the other side can motivate kids to go through the difficult and uncomfortable transition when expectations change.
While change is hard, kids’ brains are wired for learning. With guidance and support, they can learn valuable skills to help them confront uncertainty, difficulty, and all of life’s inevitable ups and downs.
Cognitive Flexibility with ADHD: Next Steps
- Q&A: How Can I Teach Flexibility to My Argumentative Child with ADHD?
- Advice: 5 Daily Rituals to Reduce Stress In Your ADHD Household Right Now
- Read: Help Your Child Embrace Change
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