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Why Psychological Flexibility Can Make Parenting Easier

| 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 their behavior or internal processes based on external situations for good outcomes by being present with their thoughts and feelings​1​.

Psychologically flexible individuals can comfortably shift their perspectives, adapt to fluctuating demands in different situations, readjust their mental flexibility processes, and balance competing needs and desires in different life domains.

It requires a person to distance themselves from current mindsets and be open to considering other possibilities.

boy plays with toy car

Why Is Psychological Flexibility Important

It’s Important to Children and Adolescents

Being flexible mentally is critical to one’s psychological well-being and success.

Children with flexible minds are more likely to succeed and become psychologically healthy adults as they can work within complex environmental contexts​2​.

Loss of flexibility is related to less prosocial behavior and more mental disorders such as insomnia, depressive disorder, and anxiety disorder. It also correlates with substance abuse, negative body image, disordered eating, pain catastrophizing, thought suppression, job burnout, and work absenteeism later in life​3​.

It’s Important to Parents

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

Flexible parents are better able to maintain present moment and nonjudgmental awareness of 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 such as “My child doesn’t listen to me. In addition, they are more likely 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​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, regardless of what their children think. Therefore, they are single-mindedly trying to get their children to follow their rules. 

Unnecessary conflicts and power struggles often result from this inflexibility.

Flexible parents are open to new 

How to Help Children Improve Their Psychological Flexibility

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​5​.

Rigidity and inflexibility are the hallmark characteristics of authoritarian parents​6​

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​7​.

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 lower levels of psychological flexibility raise children who are highly psychologically inflexible. 

During the pandemic, families with more flexible parents showed higher family cohesion and less discord​8​.

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 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​9​.

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​10​.

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.


  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.
    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
  3. 3.
    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
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    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
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    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
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    Ferrari JR, Olivette MJ. Perceptions of parental control and the development of indecision among late adolescent females. Adolescence. 1993;28(112):963–970.
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    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
  9. 9.
    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
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    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

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