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Psychological Flexibility

| What is Psychological Flexibility | Why Is Psychological Flexibility Important | How Flexibility Makes Parenting Easier | How to Help Children Improve Their Psychological Flexibility |

What is Psychological Flexibility

Psychological flexibility is a person’s capacity to adapt, persist, or change in response to challenges or changing events ​1​. It is the key to mental health and a vital skill that helps us navigate the changing demands of daily life.

In order to be psychologically flexible, one must be present with their feelings, thoughts, and goals. A mentally flexible person can take others’ perspective, adapt to changing demands, make adjustment in their mental processes, regulate difficult emotions, and balance competing needs and desires in a stressful situation.

boy plays with toy car

The Psychological Flexibility Model

The psychological flexibility model suggests six interrelated processes: acceptance, cognitive defusion, flexible present-focused attention, self-as-observer, values, and committed action​2​.

Acceptance

Embracing unwanted experiences instead of fighting them so one can meet their goals.

When a person is flexible, they can accept their feelings and thoughts, even ones they don’t like.

Cognitive defusion

It is the ability to differentiate between thoughts and direct experiences so that an individual is not dominated by their own thoughts.

Flexibility allows one to see that their thoughts aren’t the only way to think about things or that their actions don’t necessarily have to be driven by them.

Mindfulness

The flexible present-focused attention that allows one to be aware of the present moment.

A flexible person can pay attention to the present moment instead of dwelling on their own thoughts about the past or future.

Self-as-observer

The ability to experience a perspective different from one’s own.

Flexible individuals understand that their thoughts and feelings are separate processes that don’t necessarily define them.

Values

They are important desires or qualities identified to meet one’s goal.

Individuals who are flexible are clear about what they want to accomplish and are willing to consider another approach when needed.

Committed action

The ability to overcome difficulties and keep going in order to accomplish one’s goal.

By being flexible, one can follow their values and act accordingly to solve a problem.

These six processes are not entirely distinct. They represent different perspectives of a set of interrelated qualities or skills in a flexible mind.

The Importance of Psychological Flexibility

Psychological Flexibility in Children and Adolescents

Having a flexible mind is critical to one’s psychological wellbeing and success.

Children with flexible minds have more resilience. They are more likely to succeed in school. These children are also less prone to psychopathology in adulthood as they use strategies that work well within complex environmental contexts​3​.

Lack of flexibility is associated with fewer prosocial behaviors and more clinical disorders such as insomnia, depressive disorder, general anxiety disorder, and borderline personality disorder. It also correlates with substance abuse, negative body image, disordered eating, pain catastrophizing, thought suppression, job burnout, parental burnout, and work absenteeism later in life​4​.

Psychological Flexibility in Adults

Children are not the only ones who can enjoy health benefits from being flexible mentally and emotionally. Flexibility is also vital to parents’ mental health outcomes.

Flexible adults are better able to contact the present moment and their internal experiences allowing them to engage in interactions calmly. 

For example, in difficult parenting situations like noncompliance, more flexible parents may be able to tolerate their negative thoughts and feelings such as “My child doesn’t listen to me.” They also tend to be able to regulate their anger and control their yelling impulses.

The absence of flexibility can lead to higher levels of distress and poorer psychological health in parents.

How Flexibility Makes Parenting Easier

Flexibility in parents can moderate psychological distress in a parent-child relationship. When flexible parents use adaptive parenting practices,  their children tend to show less internalizing and externalizing problems​5​.

Parenting is hard. Sometimes, it’s inevitable.

But there are times when parenting is hard because the parents made it so by being rigid and inflexible.

Some parents believe they know what is best for their children, regardless of what their children want. They single-mindedly try to get their children to follow their rules resulting in unnecessary conflicts and power struggles.

How to Develop Psychological Flexibility

Human beings are unique in their adaptability or ability to find alternative routes toward desired ends.

Adaptability and fluidity are unique abilities in us. Human beings can come up with different ways and use different resources to cope with changes. No other animal on earth can match our nimbleness and resourcefulness.

However, many of these coping approaches are not innate. But children can develop repertoires of tools to deal with challenges in different life domains with the help of their parents.

Use Authoritative, Not Authoritarian Parenting Style

A longitudinal study has found that authoritarian parenting which is characterized by rigid rules and thinking in the parents can lead to psychological inflexibility in children​6​.

Rigidity and inflexibility are the hallmark characteristics of authoritarian parents​7​

They believe that rigidity equals high standards in their minds. In reality, it reduces our children’s academic performance and their ability to make decisions confidently​8​.

To help children be more flexible, it needs to start with the parent. 

Authoritative parents also have high standards, but they are also open to discussion regarding rules and expectations. They use inductive reasoning rather than punishment to discipline children

When parents model how to be open-minded to new ideas, including those from their children, or those they do not agree with, they demonstrate the willingness to see from others’ perspectives.

Become a Flexible Parent

Rigid parents tend to raise rigid children.

Children adopt their parents’ attitudes towards the environment and emotions. Parents with high levels of psychological flexibility raise children who are highly flexible. 

During the pandemic, families with more flexible parents showed higher family cohesion and less discord​9​.

So how can parents become more psychologically flexible?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Professor Steven Hayes aims to help individuals become more flexible psychologically.

There are three major components in the ACT.

Mindfulness and acceptance are keeping our minds and emotions in the present moment and accepting them as they are, whether positive emotions or negative emotions, without taking them as absolute truths. When things happen, we are free to observe them openly without needing to control, stop, or change them in any way. 

This process is the opposite of experiential avoidance which involves mental instructions that suppress or control emotional experiences considered distressing. Experiential avoidance is counterproductive because it restricts openness to experience and tends to backfire.

Committed and valued action is making a promise and following through on actions that are consistent with one’s core values and pursuit of a meaningful life.

Whenever we pursue a meaningful goal, we will likely encounter feelings and thoughts that have held us back in the past. Be committed to improving your quality of life no matter what thoughts, feelings, or memories arise.

Self-compassion is being kind to ourselves and acknowledging our negative thoughts and emotions without attaching ourselves to them​10​.

In an emergency on an airplane, parents are advised to put on their own oxygen masks first to keep their children safe. This is the same with 

Self-compassion is important in parenting. We struggle, however, to offer ourselves the same kindness we extend to others. Parents need to remember to be kind to themselves in day-to-day life.

Higher levels of self-compassion and mindfulness are associated with higher levels of mindful parenting, which, in turn, leads to lower levels of daily stress and higher levels of authoritative parenting​11​.

Seek Professional Help

Inflexibility is one of the early temperaments that are predictive of externalizing behavior problems in late childhood. Mental health professionals should be consulted early on if a child is extremely rigid.

References

  1. 1.
    Hayes SC, Luoma JB, Bond FW, Masuda A, Lillis J. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Model, processes and outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy. Published online January 2006:1-25. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2005.06.006
  2. 2.
    Hayes SC, Pistorello J, Levin ME. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as a Unified Model of Behavior Change. The Counseling Psychologist. Published online September 26, 2012:976-1002. doi:10.1177/0011000012460836
  3. 3.
    McCracken LM, Badinlou F, Buhrman M, Brocki KC. The role of psychological flexibility in the context of COVID-19: Associations with depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science. Published online January 2021:28-35. doi:10.1016/j.jcbs.2020.11.003
  4. 4.
    Doorley JD, Goodman FR, Kelso KC, Kashdan TB. Psychological flexibility: What we know, what we do not know, and what we think we know. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. Published online September 30, 2020:1-11. doi:10.1111/spc3.12566
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    Brassell AA, Rosenberg E, Parent J, Rough JN, Fondacaro K, Seehuus M. Parent’s psychological flexibility: Associations with parenting and child psychosocial well-being. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science. Published online April 2016:111-120. doi:10.1016/j.jcbs.2016.03.001
  6. 6.
    Williams KE, Ciarrochi J, Heaven PCL. Inflexible Parents, Inflexible Kids: A 6-Year Longitudinal Study of Parenting Style and the Development of Psychological Flexibility in Adolescents. J Youth Adolescence. Published online February 7, 2012:1053-1066. doi:10.1007/s10964-012-9744-0
  7. 7.
    Timpano KR, Keough ME, Mahaffey B, Schmidt NB, Abramowitz J. Parenting and Obsessive Compulsive Symptoms: Implications of Authoritarian Parenting. J Cogn Psychother. Published online August 2010:151-164. doi:10.1891/0889-8391.24.3.151
  8. 8.
    Ferrari JR, Olivette MJ. Perceptions of parental control and the development of indecision among late adolescent females. Adolescence. 1993;28(112):963–970.
  9. 9.
    Daks JS, Peltz JS, Rogge RD. Psychological flexibility and inflexibility as sources of resiliency and risk during a pandemic: Modeling the cascade of COVID-19 stress on family systems with a contextual behavioral science lens. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science. Published online October 2020:16-27. doi:10.1016/j.jcbs.2020.08.003
  10. 10.
    Leeming E, Hayes SC. Parents are people too: The importance of parental psychological flexibility. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. Published online June 2016:158-160. doi:10.1111/cpsp.12147
  11. 11.
    Gouveia MJ, Carona C, Canavarro MC, Moreira H. Self-Compassion and Dispositional Mindfulness Are Associated with Parenting Styles and Parenting Stress: the Mediating Role of Mindful Parenting. Mindfulness. Published online March 2, 2016:700-712. doi:10.1007/s12671-016-0507-y

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more

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