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7 Steps To Flexible Parenting

  • Flexible parents adapt to their children’s needs and circumstances while staying true to their values.
  • Flexibility can result in better child behavior while benefitting parents’ and children’s well-being.
  • Commitment, acceptance, and mindfulness are essential to flexible parenting.

What Is Flexible Parenting

Flexible parenting allows parents to adapt their behavior and emotional responses to their child’s specific needs and circumstances while staying true to their parenting values and priorities.

Parents often face the challenge of managing multiple competing demands simultaneously to achieve work-life balance.​1​

Many factors can affect the costs and benefits of any parenting decision. 

Flexible parents have the psychological flexibility to make these decisions based on different factors to yield positive outcomes for children rather than rigid rules. This parenting style reduces emotional strain in interactions between parent and child and fosters a strong relationship.

Among the four parenting styles in the work of Diana Baumrind, authoritative parents are flexible parents, while authoritarian parents are inflexible parents.

dad teaching girl dance

What Is Psychological Flexibility

Psychological flexibility is a set of skills you can use to manage difficult thoughts, feelings, and experiences to adapt to life’s challenges while maintaining mental well-being. They include tolerating and accepting negative emotions, being open to new ideas or different ways to do things, and taking different perspectives.

The absence of flexibility can be characterized by a set of rigid and maladaptive responses to challenging experiences, which can ultimately exacerbate distress and hinder personal growth.​2​

Flexible Parenting vs. Inflexible Parenting

Here are some flexible parenting examples and the contrast with inflexible parenting.

Flexible ParentingInflexible Parenting
DisciplineInductive parenting or
positive parenting
Strict rules and punishment
ResponseMindful and collaborativeHostile and reactive
To difficult situationsAdaptiveResist changes
Parental expectationsGuidelinesDictates
Decision makingDemocratic / Autonomy supportive parentingRigid rules made by parents
Parent’s roleAdvisor or counselorAuthority figure or disciplinarian
Example parenting styleAuthoritative parentingAuthoritarian parenting

Benefits of Flexible Parenting Style

Family Cohesion

Flexibility allows parents to be kinder and adopt a more accepting, compassionate, and non-judgmental approach to the challenges in life.

Psychologists have learned a lot about flexible parenting during the worldwide pandemic.

During the shutdown, flexible parents experienced their family as a strong support network that could turn to one another during the global crisis. This overall supportive environment allowed them to ​3​

  • Show more warmth and affection to children when they do something well
  • Give autonomy-supportive options in asking children to contribute to family activities and chores
  • Explain why other family rules needed to be followed

Parents were more likely to experience those difficult changes as challenges instead of obstacles and, therefore, suffered from less subjective stress.

This style of parenting was associated with greater family cohesion, lower family discord, and greater use of constructive parenting strategies.

In contrast, families with rigid parents were correlated with greater parenting distress, more family discord, and worsened family functioning.

Flexible Parents, Flexible Kids

Research shows that having an adaptive parent tends to result in child rigidity.​4​

To develop into competent and emotionally healthy adults, children must acquire skills that enable them to pursue their short- and long-term goals within intricate social settings. 

Mastering self-regulation of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors is essential in promoting adaptive child outcomes, including improved academic performance, healthier lifestyles, reduced mental health issues, and more fulfilling interpersonal relationships. 

This type of flexibility can play an important role in fostering this healthy development as it helps children develop adaptable regulatory strategies.

Better behavior

Negative interaction patterns between parent and child can result in externalizing behavior in children.

When parents opt for adaptive parenting practices, their children are more likely to have fewer child behavior problems.

By providing a nurturing environment, emotional support, and open communication, a flexible parenting approach allows children to learn to solve problems instead of acting out when they encounter challenges.​5​

Resilience

Children are not born resilient. The development of children’s resilience is nurtured through life experiences during childhood.

During the lockdown, parental flexibility was a major resilience protective factor.

Children with parents who demonstrated mental flexibility were found to be more resilient. They coped better despite experiencing major changes in life and losing contact with friends.​6​

Parent’s psychological well-being

A flexible mind is not only good for children but also parents. An association was found between the lack of flexibility and suicidal thoughts during the pandemic.​7​

Psychological flexibility is a major contributor to lasting psychological health and better quality of life. Those who are psychologically flexible are less likely to develop mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety disorder, etc.​8​

How To Adopt Flexible Parenting

According to the psychological flexibility model, there are six interrelated processes. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is one treatment that can help improve flexibility by focusing on these six growth areas.​9​

Acceptance

Most people, whether they are parents or not, understandably prefer to deal with only positive emotions without ever experiencing negative or difficult ones.

But the ability to accept them and live with them while still functioning effectively makes us flexible and resilient.

This means accepting negative thoughts and emotions, such as anger or guilt, when they arise while managing to act in ways that maintain the parent-child relationship, show warmth, and hold boundaries.​10​

For instance, instead of chastising and reprimanding a teenager who took the family car without permission and ended up in an accident, the psychologically flexible parent communicates their concern, comforts the shaken child, and then addresses the issue the following day after the child recovers from the shock. This approach ensures a more open and effective conversation about the situation, consequences, and future expectations.

Cognitive Defusion (Distinguishing thoughts from reality)

Cognitive defusion can help parents develop a more adaptive mindset.

Cognitive fusion occurs when thoughts are combined with their outcomes, leading to reactions as if those thoughts were true. 

For example, the belief is that if a child is allowed to make any demand, regardless of how unreasonable or unnecessary it may be, they will become spoiled. Consequently, parents strive to prevent this by not giving in to every request from their children. This leads to the development of a rule: stop a child when they demand something they cannot have.

However, when young children throw tantrums when their needs are unmet, parents often become fixated on this rule, forgetting that their child is experiencing emotional dysregulation. 

Instead of assisting their children in learning self-regulation, parents focus all their energy on stopping the crying by any means necessary. 

They may not actually have a spoiled child, but they react as if that outcome is imminent if the tantrum isn’t halted immediately. This is an example of cognitive fusion.

In essence, once we internalize certain rules, it can become more challenging for us to learn from experience and adapt our responses accordingly.​11​

Cognitive defusion, on the other hand, involves separating the fear that a child will be spoiled from the actual event and recognizing that the child needs help learning how to regulate their emotions. 

As a result, parents can provide more effective support and guidance to their social-emotional development.

Mindfulness

Cognitive defusion and acceptance cannot occur without awareness of the issues. Mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga can help a mindful parent achieve that.​12​

Mindful parenting is being mentally present at the moment, bringing full awareness to one’s actions.

So, when you encounter a stressful situation, take a deep breath to clear your mind. Be aware of any negative emotions you are trying to fight and if you are rigidly adhering to rules.

Self-as-context

Self-as-context is observing one’s own thoughts, feelings, and experiences from a detached perspective without getting caught up in them or identifying with them. It helps you recognize difficult feelings and thoughts while knowing that you are distinct from them so you can respond more objectively.​13​

For example, when a child has a tantrum in public, a parent may feel embarrassed or ashamed, worried that others will judge them as bad parents. 

However, by focusing on what’s truly important—helping the child learn to self-regulate—a parent can recognize that they are a good parent. 

With this understanding, the feelings of embarrassment or guilt fade away, as the parent knows they are doing what’s best for their child.

Values

Being flexible does not mean breaking all rules or having no boundaries. 

A key component of cultivating psychological flexibility is acting in accordance with the values one holds dear.​14​

Values are guiding principles that steer a person’s approach and direction in life.

A parent’s values influence decision-making, communication, and interactions within the parent-child relationship.

Some examples of parenting values are empathy, compassion, responsibility, respect, kindness, education, family bonding, discipline, and integrity.

Committed Action

Committed actions are chosen flexibly based on the parent’s values, and they reflect their commitments.

As busy parents, we often find ourselves on autopilot, repeating ingrained patterns of behavior without even realizing it. When this happens, our ability to consciously choose our actions diminishes.

To break this cycle, use the simple practice of “pause, notice, choose.”​15​

Check whether your current parenting strategy reflects what you value and care about most.

For example, if a parent values kindness, do they demonstrate kindness towards their child, even when the child makes mistakes? 

It’s common for parents to fall into the habit of punishment, despite valuing kindness and a strong connection with their children. Punishing a child for making mistakes might not align with the value of kindness. 

There are various compassionate approaches to teaching discipline without resorting to methods that could damage the connection between parents and children. 

By pausing and consciously selecting alternative parenting methods that reflect what they value.

Self-Compassion

During an emergency on an airplane, parents are instructed to put on their own oxygen masks first before helping their children.

Self-care is not a luxury. Before you can serve your children effectively, you must put on your own “oxygen mask.”

Self-care and self-compassion are fundamental to bolstering psychological well-being in parents. They build resilience and allow parents to be kinder to themselves as well as to their children.​16​

References

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