There are many reasons why parents bring their children in to see us here at childpsych. A common reason is anxiety, or in our littlies, anxiety presenting as behavioural difficulties. One of the most common causes of this is our old friend “Cognitive Rigidity”.
Have you ever noticed that your child becomes “stuck” on certain ideas? Maybe they will keep trying to solve a puzzle the same way, despite it never working for them. Or perhaps they are determined to follow particular routines, and become distressed when they are unable to. Other examples of cognitive rigidity might be when you ask your teen to stop texting their friends and to come and have dinner, and next minute you are in a screaming match. Or maybe you have caught them out in a lie, and even though they know they have been caught they stick to their story until they are backed into a corner (which is usually followed by a meltdown or total deflection).
Cognitive rigidity is such a problem because it is associated with so much anxiety. Just think about it – if I keep trying to force my pencil to bend, eventually it will snap. Rigid brains are no different – when we are unable to bend - or be flexible – in our thinking, eventually we snap.
Cognitive flexibility is vital for development because it allows us to adapt to change – which is happening all the time. It also allows us to develop skills; manage social situations; and problem solve, whilst developing adaptive emotion regulation skills. This is not to say that kids with flexible thinking skills never get frustrated, angry or anxious, but when they do they are more likely to be able to regulate these emotions, keep calmer and make better decisions.
So how do we develop cognitive flexibility if it doesn’t come naturally? Fortunately developing flexible thinking skills can be really fun! There are many games we can play to develop flexibility in younger children, such as dressing up; using toys for purposes other than the ones intended for them (e.g use a car as a rocket); or asking your child to help you brainstorm ideas for solving simple problems. When it comes to teens, we can model flexible thinking and lightly challenge their stuck ideas when they show up (e.g. what is another way of looking at this?) ; and model flexible thinking and behaviour.
If you are interested in discussing any of the points further or would like to hear about a particular topic, we would be more than happy to hear from you. Feel free to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will answer any questions you may have.