Going with the Flow and Letting Go: Lessons in Resilience

Despite the numerous publications on parenting in the bookstores, there hasn’t yet been a manual that truly covers all of the real-life details that parents of younger children desperately need. We’ve all read the seminal titles on the developmental stages of our children. We’ve relied on advice from credentialed experts as we learned how to deal with combatting childhood ailments, coaxing reluctant eaters, and comforting restless sleepers. However, there’s little advice offered to parents about the best ways to help our children develop the confidence that they need to just “roll with it” when faced with change or disappointment. How can we help our kids to lighten up and not sweat the small stuff? How long should a child be super-sensitive and wear his heart on his sleeve? There’s something to be said for teaching a child to be flexible—for introducing and reinforcing the notion that it is possible to survive the unpredictable.

Kids crave routine almost as much as they crave sunshine. They seek out structure, both at home and in school. The predictability provides them with a sense of security. They know the plan: what happens first, and what happens next. With that idea in mind, they can visualize living through the plan. Depending on the child, they might even be able to imagine small variations on the plan. However, when the plan and routine are greatly changed, the vision is disrupted and many children find it difficult to shift into the zone of unpredictability. At times, this difficulty looks like stubbornness, defiance or hysteria. At other times, it looks like fortress-like rigidity and refusal. The challenge in the moment is to consider that “willfulness” as not just reactive, but self-preserving behavior on the part of the child. That’s not what we’re supposed to do right now. I didn’t know that was going to happen. I’m not doing that!

Parents face this challenge daily.  A quick errand on the way home after a long school day might cause a bout of whining in the back seat: Why can’t we just go home now? How long is this going to take? Do we have to go? A last minute change in dinner plans that involves staying home instead of going out brings on a fit of temper: I don’t want to stay home. I want to go to a restaurant! A standing play-date cancelled at the last minute prompts hours of crying: Why can’t I go? I don’t have anything to do! Why won’t you let me go? We go every week! These are the types of outbursts that can truly try a parent’s patience, IF we disregard the importance of routine in our children’s lives. Yet, there are exceptions. What about an unplanned side-trip for ice cream on the way home? (There would be little whining about that!) What about an impromptu play-date? (That would rarely cause a meltdown.) And of course, the gift of a snow day off from school would never cause tantrums or crying. These are certainly disruptions of the routine. However, those disruptions have positively delightful outcomes—ones that few children would pass up. Though they involve the child’s stepping away from structure and predictability, the rewards for doing so are great. Most importantly, the child can visualize the change, the outcome and reward, and how he will feel when he gets the reward. That’s worth surviving the change, right? I thought we were going straight home; but we’re stopping for ice cream first. Yesssss! Changes with outcomes that aren’t so easily recognized are more difficult to survive without upset: If I don’t have my regular play-date, what will I do? Who will play with me? I wanted to go to that restaurant. I was going to have sushi. I really like sushi. Now what will I have for dinner? What if I don’t like it?

So how can we help our children through the changes that don’t end with a treat or reward?  Staying ever mindful of their likes, dislikes and general disposition is critical. With those important pieces of the puzzle in place, we can coach our children by previewing changes in the routine. Much like teachers’ preview each day’s schedule for a class, parents can prepare their children for disruptions of the set plan while acknowledging that change can be annoying, upsetting and disappointing. It helps if as much as notice as possible can be given; but it can’t always be that easy. That’s when delivering the message clearly and in an understanding way really counts. We were going out for dinner tonight; but we’re staying home instead. I know you really wanted to go to that restaurant; and I see that you’re pretty disappointed. We’ll go another time. Promises made to ease a child’s disappointment must be kept. If you say that something is postponed, don’t forget to reschedule it. Keep your word. This not only strengthens the trust between you and your child, it helps them to learn to delay gratification and that the delay will be worth it. Sometimes things don’t happen when we want them to; but they will happen eventually. One step further: parents can seize the opportunity to model surviving disappointment by verbalizing how the new plan affects them. You know, I was counting on going out to dinner tonight too. I really like that restaurant. I need to think about what we’re going to have for dinner, now that we’re staying home. Bummer: I was counting on not cooking tonight!

It’s important to avoid using sarcasm at all costs. We’re not going out for dinner tonight. We’re staying home. It’s not like you LOVE that restaurant anyway, right?  When a routine is broken, a child feels vulnerable and needs time to process the change. Sarcasm sends the message that their feelings aren’t important and can be brushed off or joked away. For the most part, young children don’t understand sarcasm, though they often pretend that they do. They experiment with it and think that it might be funny, or that it deserves a laugh. Yet, they might not understand why. After all, they see and hear examples of bitter sarcasm with an accompanying laugh track on TV. (That’s another blog topic for another time!) They don’t always understand that sarcasm can be inappropriate and hurtful, until they are the recipients of it and the comments just don’t feel right. When a child’s resilience is being tested, steer far away from sarcasm. Lean toward acknowledging their feelings and helping them name them and claim them. Then talk through what will happen next and involve them in the shift to the new plan. Okay, so we’re having dinner at home tonight. Both of us wanted sushi; but we’ll go to the restaurant another time. I think I’ll make chicken; that’ll be quick and easy. What veggies do you think we should have? Do you want to help me cook?

It might sound a bit corny; but some children find it helpful to have a mantra to ease them through change. I have strong memories of working with a group of first graders who learned to say “go with the flow” whenever the schedule changed. Our SSFS second graders are learning that sometimes we just have to say, “Oh well!” when things don’t go the way we thought they would. A former colleague of mine used to say, “Just put it in a balloon and let it go.” In my family, there are times when we try to “roll with it.”  Other times, a firmer approach is needed: “We have to do what we HAVE to do, before we can do what we WANT to do.” Coming up with a catch phrase should be a collaborative process that gives the child the opportunity to say whether or not it works for them. The trick is to know your child and use an approach that is compatible with his or her temperament. No trick lasts forever; and parents need to continually tap into their own storehouses of flexibility and patience. There’s a treat at the end though: a more resilient child who realizes that he can indeed survive change if he just lets go and goes with the flow.

3 comments to Going with the Flow and Letting Go: Lessons in Resilience

  • Hi Brenda,

    I am a children’s travel book author (hardcover traveltivity guides) – http://www.bronteandfrank.com – and have recently released an ebook featuring my award winning family travel tips (through a Conde Nast Traveler contest) – http://www.cntraveler.com/perrin-post/2011/05/a-to-z-family-travel-contest-we-have-a-winner

    I found your page by googling ‘how to teach children to go with the flow’ – and have taken the liberty of linking one of my A-Z pages to it (F is for FUN). I wanted to ask your permission to do so and invite you to take a look at the book in its entirety – it’s a free download, includes soundtrack, effects, music, weblinks and even some funny bloopers – BRONTE & FRANK’S AWARD WINNING TRAVEL TIPS – https://itunesconnect.apple.com/WebObjects/iTunesConnect.woa/wo/

    My daughter is 8 now and has already spent long periods of time in 17 countries. Our motto when traveling is definitely to ‘GO WITH THE FLOW’ as you can never predict what is going to happen next in a foreign country where you can’t speak the language – or even just sitting on a domestic plane on the tarmac for 8 hours!

    Many thanks,



    I’d love any feedback you might have and hope you have time to explore the sound track and bloopers:)

    Many thanks,

    Worthy Hen Productions
    269 S. Beverly Drive
    Beverly Hills CA 90212
    +1 310 738 1181

  • Brenda

    Thanks so much, Gena. Remember: it’s a marathon, not a sprint! –Brenda

  • Genna Romanow

    Thanks for the ideas in here. I love that one of the first things the kindergartners learn is to “go with the flow”. I rely, and my kids rely, on schedule so learning to “go with the flow” and to be able to say that at times of disruption has helped us all. I think we will be ready for “oh well” in second grade”. In between I am going to remind myself of letting balloons go. I am glad I found the blog – better late than never!

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