Focus on the Family

How to Raise Adaptable Kids

Discouraged boy trying to do his homework at a dining table
Help your children learn to be flexible now so they’ll do better when unexpected change comes their way.

Pete’s grade-school teacher announced a pop quiz, but Pete wasn’t prepared. Unable to answer the questions, he started to cry. This wasn’t the first time Pete reacted this way. He frequently needed support when he faced conflicts and challenging circumstances. To put it simply, Pete wasn’t able to adapt.

Adaptability is the capacity to adjust to a change in circumstances, particularly when the change is unexpected. Kids are more adaptable when they’re able to employ skills like resilience, confidence, persistence, healthy risk and positive self-talk.

As a licensed counselor, I often hear comments that address an underlying concern about a child’s adaptability.

  • “Ever since he received a D on his test and was instructed to do revisions, he’s been disengaged. I think I’ve lost him.”
  • “She decides she can’t do it, gives up and checks out.”

Some young people struggle socially, academically or emotionally when confronted with sudden and unexpected change.

How can we as parents help our children to proactively adapt to different situations and adversity so they come out stronger and more capable?

Adapt your parenting style

William was a perfectionistic son. His parents noticed he avoided trying new things because he was afraid of failure. One day, William’s parents took him on a ski trip. He kept crying, “I can’t do this!” His parents recognized he needed to build his confidence and physical endurance. Rather than push him to try harder when he believed he couldn’t, they decided to offer him several active athletic options and let him choose the one he was ready to try.

Some children are predisposed to be less adaptable. Work hard to be aware of how your children uniquely process their environment and plan accordingly. Pray that God will help you understand each child and his or her needs.

Then give yourself permission to parent each of your children differently based on who they are. These differences may be large or small. Be willing to meet your children where they are and to help them grow through customized steps that lead to a more adaptable direction.

Let your kids fail

Clair was a good student who earned top grades. But her mom noticed Clair was beginning to neglect her usual good study habits. After a few encouraging prompts to lean into her studies, Claire’s mom decided to let it go and let Clair deal with the results. When Claire did poorly on a test, rather than say, “I told you so,” her mom directed a conversation that led Claire to set her own goals for future tests and to make a plan that would allow her to achieve them.

Provide clear guidance and expectations for your children, and then allow struggle. Adaptability and resilience are forged through challenges. As your children learn to turn to their own resources, they will have the opportunity to practice leaning on God’s sustaining strength for themselves. Resist the urge to rescue your children from difficult situations. By allowing them to fail, you help them learn what adaptation feels like and grow in the confidence of knowing they can overcome the unexpected.

Establish a solid foundation

Sydney became overanxious about her social standing in the lunchroom when a couple new students joined the crowd at her usual table, leaving no room for her. She was tempted to make a big deal about the sting to her pride, but she remembered her value was not found through the eyes of other people. She asked another classmate, Grace, if she could sit at Grace’s table for lunch, and Grace gladly agreed.

Teach your children that their identity is not found in what they do, what other people say about them or what they can control. Their identity is fully and wholly found in Christ, as beloved children of God, and that is the only identity that will last for eternity. When life surprises them or circumstances change, their identity in Christ provides an unmoving foundation on which they can stand. Praise your children’s efforts and individual problem-solving skills, and point out when you see them standing firm in God’s love.

Require sharing

Kaitlyn spent quality time with her peers in two completely different contexts. She loved being part of the marching band at school and belonging to her church’s youth group. Both communities valued her presence and required a significant amount of time and commitment. In the past year, Kaitlyn spent countless hours learning formations and memorizing songs to play with the band. She was also part of a curriculum development team for the second-grade vacation Bible school curriculum at her church. These experiences helped Kaitlyn practice patience and work through frustrations as she learned to be an individual within a group of many.

As kids share space and possessions with others, they typically grow more flexible. If you have more than one child, require them to share often. If not, be sure your child spends plenty of time with other kids. Either way, encourage involvement in church groups, teams, musical groups and other sources of community. In these contexts, your kids will have plenty of opportunities to learn how to share, compromise and exercise flexibility.

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