Coaching Flexibility To The Overly Rigid Child

What can be done about an incredibly rigid 8-year-old who just can't deal with life's twists and turns?

Despite parents' efforts to raise a child who goes with the flow in life, this goal can be elusive due to the presence of personality rigidity and its associated problems. Uncompromising adherence to routines, paralyzing ambivalence when faced with distinct choices of action, and a presumptuous repudiation of adult decision making when it fails the "consistency test" are common expressions of rigidity in childhood. When contending with a child in the throes of rigid lock-down, parents often feel helpless about getting through this formidable wall of one-way thinking.

If these examples are unfortunately familiar, consider the following coaching tips to stretch your rigid child into a more flexible one:

  • When discussing the problem with your child, don't confuse rigidity with simple stubbornness. Avoid blaming and any suggestions that the child is "deciding to be this way." Personality-based rigidity can be likened to mental restraints that trap the child in perceiving the world in an extreme black and white fashion This is quite different from the stubborn child who chooses not to cooperate. Children gripped by rigidity are in as much anguish as the adults trying to help them be released from it. Use this realization when approaching the topic for discussion. "We want to help you free yourself from that trap in your mind that makes you see change as bad and that routines must always be followed," gets the discussion underway.
  • Introduce terminology that pinpoints problems and leads the way to solutions. Explain how rigidity stiffens up their ability to mentally move beyond a thought and flow with the course of events that follow. Expectations of how things are supposed to happen at home, the need to provide answers to questions in school, or sudden shifts in routine during a play date are times when rigidity can trap them into extreme reactions. Rigidity makes them think that prior routines or specific rules must be followed, no matter the circumstances. Emphasize how circumstances are actually far more important than "rigidity rules" because life is constantly changing, and rigidity fools them into thinking that things must stay the same.
  • Spell out how circumstances will free them from rigid thinking. "This means asking yourself questions such as Where am I? Who is with me? What is expected of me? What is different that changes what to expect?" Provide examples such as the Friday family movie night routine not being followed if special guests were visiting since this would be rude or wasteful of available time to spend together. Review previous situations when they fell into rigidity traps but if they opened their mind to circumstances they might have been able to control their reactions to change. Stress the idea that life "throws curve balls" at all of us and we can stretch ourselves to accept these shifts from expectation.
  • Gently discuss the emotional toll of their failure to accept change. Rigid children may be quick to meltdown in extreme reactions when unwelcome change violates a rule, routine, or expectation. Parents are wise to work on "making change their friend " instead of their adversary. Inoculate them by gradually introducing change, first in minor ways such as changing the seating arrangements at dinner, and then proceeding to more challenging change tests when they are ready. Explain the importance of them accepting change much like they accept a new school teacher every year. Tell them that inconsistency and randomness are part of life, and expect more if it!

APA Reference
Richfield, S. (2019, August 19). Coaching Flexibility To The Overly Rigid Child, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 21 from

Last Updated: August 19, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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