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What Is Psychological Flexibility

What is Psychological Flexibility

Psychological flexibility is the capacity to adapt, persist, or change in response to challenges or changing events as a conscious human being ​1​. It is the key to psychological health and a vital skill that helps us navigate the changing demands of daily life.

To be psychologically flexible, one must be present with their feelings, thoughts, and goals.

Here are what a mentally flexible person can do in a stressful situation:

  • take others’ perspectives
  • adapt to changing demands
  • adjust their mental processes
  • regulate difficult emotions or painful thoughts
  • balance competing needs and desires in a stressful situation
boy plays with toy car

The Psychological Flexibility Model

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

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


Embracing unwanted thoughts, instead of fighting them, to meet their goals.

When people are flexible, they can accept their difficult thoughts and feelings, even ones they don’t like.

Cognitive defusion

It is the ability to differentiate between thoughts and direct experiences so that individuals are not dominated by their own thinking.

Higher psychological 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.


Present-focused attention 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 past experiences or the future.


Being able to observe is having the ability to experience or see things that are different from their own. They are willing to view things from others’ point of view.

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


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 to accomplish one’s goal is commitment.

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

The Importance of Psychological Flexibility

In Children and Adolescents

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​2​.

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, and thought suppression​3​.

Having a flexible mind is critical to children’s well-being and success.

In Adults

Children are not the only ones whose mental and physical health benefits from being flexible. Parents with mental flexibility also experience positive health outcomes.

Flexible adults can better distinguish the present moment and their internal experiences allowing them to engage in interactions calmly. 

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

The absence of flexibility can lead to more distress, mental health problems, job burnout, parental burnout, and work absenteeism.

Why Flexible Parenting Is Easier

Flexible parenting can reduce emotional strain in the parent-child relationship. When parents use adaptive parenting practices,  their children tend to show less internalizing and externalizing problems​4​.

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 in any situation, regardless of what they want. These parents single-mindedly try to get their children to follow their rules resulting in unnecessary conflicts and power struggles.

How Parents Can Develop Psychological Flexibility

Adaptability and fluidity are unique abilities in human beings.

They can find different ways and use different resources to cope with changes. They can also seek alternative routes toward an important desire if they want to.

No other animal on earth can match our nimbleness and resourcefulness.

But many of the coping approaches are not innate. Both parents and children can develop repertoires of tools to deal with challenges in life.

Be Mindful of Meaningful Goals

Unhappy memories, unpleasant thoughts, and scary feelings tend to constrain our psychological flexibility. We often automatically react towards getting rid of, changing, or minimizing these unwanted internal events rather than focusing on the present moment or the ultimate goals of our action.

A  child’s repeated disobedience may trigger memories of unhappy past interactions with that child. It can also trigger unpleasant memories of the parent’s own childhood. As a result, the parent automatically reacts with anger and yelling to change or eliminate the unwanted thoughts. 

The parent’s ultimate goal of teaching good values and behavior and developing a strong relationship with the child is quickly replaced by the immediate goal of getting compliance from the child.

A  child’s repeated disobedience may trigger memories of unhappy past interactions with that child. It can also trigger unpleasant memories of the parent’s own childhood. As a result, the parent automatically reacts with anger and yelling to change or eliminate the unwanted thoughts. 

The parent’s ultimate goal of teaching good values and behavior and developing a strong relationship with the child is quickly replaced by the immediate goal of getting compliance from the child.

Mindfulnesss is keeping our minds and emotions in the present moment and accepting them as they are, whether positive or negative, without judgment. it is the opposite of experiential avoidance which involves mental instructions that suppress or bottle up emotional experiences considered distressing.

By being mindfull, we observe them openly as things happen without needing to control, stop, or change them.

A mindful parent can notice the rise of negative emotions, take a deep breath, and observe the situation from a distance.  They will see that yelling does not teach values to the child, nor does it model good behavior, and it damages the relationship. A flexible parent will then try alternative parenting methods to reach their long-term goal.

Commit To Upholding Values

Parents can become more flexible by committing to act in accordance with their core values and to meet their long-term goals that are meaningful.

In twenty years, if your relationship with your child means more to you than dirty clothes on the floor, then your actions should reflect and support that goal even though you may have to endure some difficult feelings now.

Be Open-minded

Parents who is open to new ideas can discover a different way to parent allowing them to achieve both short- and long-term goals.

Positive parenting and inductive parenting are two such examples.

Prioritize Self-Care

Distress makes keeping an open mind difficult. Parenting can be stressful and it is important that parents take good care of themselves.

Distress makes keeping an open mind difficult. Parenting can be stressful and it is important that parents take good care of themselves.

As parents get better rested and relax, dirty dishes won’t seem as big a deal.

It is common for parents to put themselves last when taking care of their children. But in an emergency on an airplane, parents must put on their own oxygen masks first to keep their children safe.

This is the same with parenting.

Having self-compassion and mindfulness are associated with higher levels of mindful parenting, leading to lower levels of daily stress​5​.

Set aside time for self-care.

Being kind to yourself can improve your quality of life, too.


Meditation is a form of mindfulness. It is a practice that involves training the mind to focus on the present moment and cultivate a sense of calm and clarity.

For parents, incorporating meditation into their daily routine can be an effective way to cultivate open-mindedness.

It is also a great way to decompress and relax the mind​6​.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy incorporates similar ideas and it aims to help individuals become more flexible psychologically​7​.

The three major components in the ACT are:

  • Acceptance
  • Committed and valued action
  • Self-compassion

How Children Can Develop Psychological Flexibility

Children need parents’ help to develop a flexible mind.

Here’s how.

Use Authoritative, Not Authoritarian Parenting Style

A longitudinal study has found that authoritarian parenting can lead to psychological inflexibility in children​8​.

Rigidity and inflexibility are the hallmark characteristics of authoritarian parents​9​. They believe that rigid rules equal high standards.

In reality, being inflexible reduces our children’s academic performance and ability to make decisions confidently​10​.

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 family 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’ perspective.

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​11​.

So how can parents become more psychologically flexible?

Do Mindfulness Exercises

Teach them how to meditate. Besides improving flexibility, it also improves their concentration.

Seek Professional Help

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


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Updated on May 11th, 2023 by Pamela Li

Pamela Li is an author, 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


    * All information on is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *