Teaching Kids Mental Flexibility

Helping our children see shades of grey and improve cognitive adaptability

When our kids jump to conclusions, or are engaging in rigid thinking, it’s our natural instinct to try and explain away what we perceive as inaccurate reasoning.

We often try to logic people out of their feelings, and I have certainly been guilty of this myself. When we’re trying to teach our kids to see the world in shades of grey, to help them improve cognitive flexibility, this logic-and-reasoning approach often backfires.

So when our kids struggle to see beyond black and white, and to consider the perspectives of others, how can we help them?


How does it make you feel when you express an opinion or feeling and someone disagrees with your experience?

When I was a new mom, a fellow new mom friend and I were meeting for lunch. I think our babies were both about 8 months old and still in highchairs. As we were wrapping up, she said she had been very anxious about bringing her little one to a restaurant.

My friend confided she was afraid of her baby making a lot of noise or a big mess, and having other diners judge her to be a bad mom, or the staff thinking of her and her baby a nuisance.

We could have just left if they acted up,” I responded.

Anxiety isn’t rational, Jill,” my friend corrected me.

Right. I knew that. My response, although intended to be helpful, was invalidating and dismissive. My friend was expressing her feelings and I was trying to talk her out of them, rather than just listening and being supportive.

Oops. Luckily she’s a forgiving friend.

We do this to our kids all the time. We don’t always take them seriously because they’re kids.

Before we can help our children explore areas of grey, or explore other possibilities, first we must acknowledge and validate their experience and feelings.

Challenging someone’s perspective often puts them on the defensive, which can have the opposite of the desired affect, causing them to become further entrenched in their position. Plus, listening and trying to understand someone’s point of view is a lot nicer than telling them their feelings are wrong simply because you don’t get it.


Along with validation, we must empathize with our children’s experiences if we want them to learn how to empathize with others.

My son is a big rule monitor. Due to black and white thinking and anxiety, he can get really stuck if he believes someone ins’t following the rules. When he gets into this rigid thinking pattern, it does no good to try to lecture or logic him out of it (and trust me, I have tried!).

I’ve learned (mostly the hard way), when our brains are stressed, or in anxiety mode, we’re unable to access the rational and reasonable part of our brain (the PFC).

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When my son starts “policing” the behaviour of others, the most important way to help settle his anxiety is for him to feel heard. Only after I’ve acknowledged and empathized with his feelings can he zoom out from his tunnel vision and see a larger picture.

He’s cheating! We’re not supposed to do that, it’s against the rules.”

That can be so frustrating when someone isn’t following the rules, I hear ya buddy.

Yeah, he’s doing it on purpose and ruining the game!

I’m sorry this makes it hard for you guys to have fun. I wonder if maybe he didn’t know that rule yet? I don’t think he’s played this game a lot before. If you explained it to him, would you both be willing to try again?

If I’d immediately chastised him for being “bossy”, or for accusing his friend of cheating when his friend is just learning to play, then the conversation becomes about me taking the other kid’s side, or my son coming up with ways to support his original thesis that the other kid was cheating on purpose.

It’s much more effective (and supportive) for me to show that I care about his feelings and then help him see things from the other person’s perspective before trying to problem-solve.


The above examples also role-model perspective-taking and engaging in flexible thinking. It would be unfair to expect our children to work on mental flexibility if we’re not willing to do the same.

When you’re anticipating something happening a certain way, but the plan or circumstances change, how do you respond? Do you get upset and express your frustration out loud, or do you roll with it and seek to find an alternative?

Please don’t misunderstand me, neither one is wrong. Every person’s response is valid. It’s important to know ourselves and how we tend to react, then we can modulate our response, so we are demonstrating what we want our children to see, hear, and learn from us.

I have certainly not always been good at going with the flow. I frequently struggle with black and white thinking and adapting to unexpected change, but so does my son, who is also neurodivergent. This has motivated me to be a lot more mindful of the examples I am setting for him.

Not only can we role model helpful responses to curveballs life throws our way, we can process our thoughts out loud, to give children an in-the-moment and authentic illustration of how it’s done — which means we need to have a script or plan in place for when we hit bumps in the road.

There have been numerous times over the past 2 years where many of us have had to pivot due to the pandemic. I remember one particular example, right at the beginning of the Covid outbreaks here in Manitoba.

Wise beyond his years

My son and I are sent by our doctor for bloodwork. Our doctor’s clinic has a lab in the same building, so we head there. As we round the corner, we see a line-up down the hallway. Wow, that’s a little unusual, I think. This lab is always busy, but not typically this busy.

We round the next corner and the line continues. It is nearly back to the emergency exit at the end of the next hallway. It’s a solid two-hour wait at least. Sigh. I look online to see if any other labs are doing bloodwork by appointment, but the situation is the same everywhere.

Luckily, my son and I came prepared and each have a new book in hand. I shrug my shoulders, look at my son and say, “not much we can do about it, right kiddo?” He agrees, and says “complaining won’t make it go faster, right, mom?”

Right, buddy. He’s about seven years old, and I feel very proud of us both in that moment. In the past, I would have become very irritable and impatient, and would likely have left in a huff. Instead, we settle in for the long wait and start reading.

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB


If you like acronyms, the best I could come up with is vert, which means green in French. Validate, empathize, role-model, and talk (process) out loud.

Validate, empathize, role-model, and talk (process) out loud.
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Published by Neurodiversity MB

Jillian has Child and Youth Work diploma as well as a BA in Psychology. Jillian worked on the front lines of Social Services agencies from 2003 - 2012. Jillian has taken numerous continuing education courses and has attended various workshops focused on supporting neurodiverse children, in particular children with ADHD.

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