by Pat Blackwell, Ph.D.
Some children are “flexible” by nature. They can adapt to change with ease. From day one they are dubbed “easy babies.” The polar opposite of this child is what I call the “fixed thinker.” It’s hard to define an inflexible child in positive terms—though I always try to keep descriptions positive. They are, let’s say, committed to their vision of things. Unfortunately we live in a frustrating world and temperamentally rigid children spend a good deal of psychic energy rebelling against “the way things are.”
Fixed thinkers may have a meltdown if they expected one thing and something else happens. If she is thinking Burger King and you roll into the Wendy’s drive-though, an epic emotional eruption may occur. Some fixed thinkers must have the same blue cup at meals, or always be first out of the door. Rigid thinkers may have an extreme reaction if they feel frustrated or if there is a schedule change. If Annie expects Mom to pick her up from nursery and grandmother comes instead, it may not be pretty!
Another aspect of fixed thinking is what I call “brain snags.” These children cannot move on after you have said “no” or if they lose a game. While waiting for something, they may repeat their request, over and over, until gratified. Although we cannot change a child’s temperament, we can advance coping and set up the environment to make it more manageable for a “fixed-thinking” child.
Who they are, how to help
Children who are on the “spirited” side are often fixed thinkers (see: Mary Kurcinka’s books on the subject). Spirited means “more,” including emotional intensity and their reactions to things. It makes sense that intense, spirited children would be fixed in their thinking; it’s harder for them to control their impulses and reaction to things. Individuals on the autism spectrum tend to be rigid in their thinking as well.
Parents of fixed thinkers can help in two ways. First, set up an environment that reduces stress for the child to prevent meltdowns. Second, help fixed thinkers learn to cope and become more adaptable.
Fixed thinkers need consistency in all ways including schedules, discipline and the emotional state (mood) of the home or the caregivers. Warning a child before a transition (avoid abruptness), getting up earlier so Mama is cool and collected, sticking to rules and routines on a daily basis are all doable. And if Grandma is on pick-up duty, tell Annie in the morning or by messenger! Talk about rules and routines with the child; this is reassuring and serves as a reminder. Parents of rigid thinkers must choose their battles and allow the child to be in control of some things.
The process of learning to be flexible is life-long and requires motivation. Get the fixed thinker to recognize that rigidity is a problem—along with the monumental meltdowns it causes. Next, help him understand his emotional triggers, teach coping, and get him to recognize that there is more than one way of looking at a problem. Coping must be activated by perceiving when he is upset, then breathing, counting and using visualization practices to calm down. Then he must be consistently reinforced for doing so.
Parents can read stories and play games that emphasize perspective taking (such as I-spy). When a disappointment occurs, the parents can play the Lemonade game (when life gives you lemons make lemonade). So when something disappointing happens there can be a benefit. For example, a parent could say: “Annie, you were sad that Granny picked you up instead of me. But she took you for ice cream after!” “Parker you lost the game but you get to practice being a good sport!” Parents may practice flexibility by deliberately going a different route home or playing a familiar game like checkers with different rules. Then discuss how it feels to do things differently.
It must be hard being a fixed thinker in a world full of twists and turns. But with some help from caregivers, the world can be a much more settled place.