When the Omicron variant forced Michelle Felder's six-year-old daughter to start wearing KN95 masks instead of the fun ones she was used to, she became increasingly anxious. "Before, she knew she had to wear a mask,” says Felder, a mother of two in New York and founder of Parenting Pathfinders. “Now she has to wear a specific type of mask—and she was worried about what this change meant. She wondered why things had to be different."
When the pandemic began in 2020, much was made of children’s ability to be resilient: their ability to bounce back after facing adversity. But this year, as the pandemic continues to disrupt kids’ lives in surprising ways—especially in the wake of the highly contagious Omicron variant—it’s all about their ability to adapt. And experts say that’s an important skill set that could benefit them into adulthood.
“When we’re adaptable, we spend less time being reactive and more time being able to be receptive, creative problem-solvers,” says Tina Payne Bryson, co-author of The Whole-Brain Child. “We’re usually happier and tend to have more of a sense of agency in the world, believing that we are able to navigate our world.” This ability allows the child to feel safer, more competent, and more confident about their environment.
Some children instinctively withdraw when presented with new ideas or changes; others are naturally receptive to new people, places, and experiences. “The good news is that over time, when kids are given opportunities to practice and successfully navigate changes, their capacity can be expanded,” Bryson says.
Experts say adjusting to the latest pandemic challenges—a new kind of mask, disrupted school schedules because of infected teachers and bus drivers, more frequent testing procedures—can help children prepare for even bigger obstacles later in life. Here’s how parents can develop these skills in their children.
Resiliency versus adaptability
The terms “resiliency” and “adaptability” have sometimes been used interchangeably, but they’re not the same.
“Resilience is when we face challenges, difficult times, and uncomfortable emotions, we can handle and tolerate what comes in our way,” Bryson says. Resilience is more about how our nervous system responses—like emotions and physiological distress—tolerate, push through, and bounce back.
Adaptability, on the other hand, is the ability to shift, change, adjust, and be responsive to unpredictability, change, surprises, and obstacles. “It’s not just adversity or challenge that requires us to be adaptable,” Bryson says. “It can even be good, exciting, positive things.” So when children are adaptable, they’re being cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally flexible.
Adaptability is an inborn trait, but kids can become more adaptable as their prefrontal cortex matures. That’s the part of the brain that controls impulses, manages emotional reactions, predicts consequences, plans the future, and anticipates events in the environment.
“It’s something we can get better at, really at any age,” Bryson says. “For many, it’s a developmental challenge they grow through. Being adaptable is a pretty sophisticated skill, so as the brain becomes more sophisticated, this ability grows.”
And it’s an important skill to develop. According to a Journal of Educational Psychology study of 969 high school students, researchers found that children who are more adaptable participate in class more, enjoy school, and want to do better academically. These students tend to have higher self-esteem, life satisfaction, and sense of meaning and purpose.
Helping kids become more adaptable
The ability to adapt varies from child to child. So first, find out how adaptable your child is. Does she like surprises? Get stressed out when they have to change routines? Does he get upset if you ask him to switch activities?
“When a child is hesitant to go to a new school or try a new food, it’s because of their personality; it’s not coming from fear,” says Debra MacDonald, a certified parenting educator and site director of the Center for Parenting Education. “The child may just not be comfortable with jumping right in. They need to see things first.”
For instance, Arlene Bordinhao took her preschooler, Xavier, on a tour of his new school when he shifted back to in-person learning. “Xavier doesn’t like surprises, so we wanted to make sure to help control the things we can control,” she says. “We always let him know what will be happening tomorrow before bed and when he wakes up.”
Less adaptable kids tend to be more rigid, more resistant, and less comfortable around unfamiliar faces. However, they also thrive on routines, which MacDonald says can be used to help kids feel comfortable in new environments. For example, you can list the COVID-testing schedule on a dry erase calendar so your child knows what to expect.
Kids learn best from doing things themselves and by having it modeled for them. “As parents, we can narrate our process so our children can internalize how we’re being flexible and can echo that type of self-dialogue,” Bryson says. For example, you can say, “Well, I didn’t expect to have to give up my cloth mask, but the medical-grade masks look really strong. Maybe it will be fun to find a new mask together.”
Using play to teach adaptability
Children also learn a lot about adaptability from peers, and play is good training. “When they play with family or friends, things aren’t always predictable; sometimes the playmate wants to do things differently from the child,” Bryson says. “And because it’s so fun, the child is willing to stretch beyond their own wishes and preferences in order for the play to continue.”
Games in which planning is important—like checkers or chess—can help a child learn to pivot when faced with an obstacle. “Ultimately, adaptability is the ability to imagine alternate scenarios,” says Madeline Levine, a psychologist and author of Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World.
Another game she suggests is Simon Says, which builds self-control and rewards listening skills. “You have to switch behavior very quickly,” Levine says. “There are lots of ways to be good at the game if you follow the rules and can change behavior quickly.”
Parents can also have a child come up with as many uses as they can for an object. “This helps broaden thinking in a playful way,” she says.
When Felder's daughter is struggling to adapt because of big worries about COVID, they talk about things that she’s grateful for. It was something the child came up with herself after months of writing and drawing fun memories her family made during the pandemic.
"So when she started to feel overwhelmed by this unexpected change, I asked her what she could do to help herself move through this big feeling,” Felder says. “She said, ‘I know! Let’s talk about what we’re grateful for!’”
According to Levine, the key to adaptability is not to be wedded to your particular way of viewing the world or a situation.
“Teach your child that pivoting—and changing directions—can be fun and interesting,” she says. “Give your child a choice and then walk them through the pros and cons. And encourage their enthusiasm and curiosity about different ways of seeing things.”