The Problem With Being Positive All of the Time
5 tips to help children become more emotionally flexible.
Posted May 09, 2019
“Think Positive!” “When in doubt, just think happy thoughts.” “Just push through the pain and the fear.” “There is no crying in baseball.”
We’ve all heard these phrases throughout our lifetime. So have our children. In fact, we may have said some of these things to our children in an attempt to help them move past strong negative emotions. I know I heard these phrases. And I know I used similar ones on my children. I’ll never forget the day my anxious child explained to me that my “think positive” statements were hurting her—she felt like she wasn’t allowed to feel anything other than happy.
Imagine my shock. This wasn’t what I’d intended to say to my daughter at all. I just wanted her to learn to discern her thoughts and shift into different mindsets. What I’d left out in my “think happy” and “happiness is a choice” statements was the importance of emotional flexibility. And it had hurt my child and contributed to her anxious responses.
Today’s children are struggling with self-esteem, anxiety, and depression6. One reason, I believe, is an unintended consequence and misunderstanding of the positive psychology movement. People often assume that positive psychology is all about being positive all of the time. That may be with good reason. Most of the information around positive psychology centers around embracing happiness and joy, and villainizing stress and negative emotions3. But this picture is incomplete. The positive psychology movement is actually about embracing the total of human emotion and practicing emotional, cognitive, and response flexibility1.
Flexibility—cognitive, emotional, and response—refers to the ability to shift your thinking, emotions, and behaviors with ease. It means thinking and feeling appropriate to the context, but not getting stuck in a particular thought (rumination) or feeling. It means being able to acknowledge where you are and understand the fluid nature of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. And it means being able to choose your responses in any given situation. This type of intentional flexibility corresponds to resilience and increased emotional intelligence2.
Clearly, flexibility is an essential skill for both you and your children. How can you teach children to become flexible in their lives? The following 5 tips will help you nurture cognitive and emotional flexibility in your children and increase their resilience and emotional intelligence skills1:
- Help your children develop an emotional vocabulary. Developing psychological flexibility begins with developing a robust emotional vocabulary. Help teach children of all ages about the full range of emotions available to any human. Talk about feelings and model an emotional vocabulary by describing your feelings in a variety of ways. For example, instead of saying, “I’m angry” every time you feel mad, be more specific. Say, “I’m irritated with that behavior,” or, “This situation makes so annoyed.” Be sure to include positive and neutral emotions, like “I am giddy right now,” or “Sometimes I just feel so blah, you know?” By describing all emotions, you help your children learn to do the same. You also normalize feeling emotions and set the tone that all feelings are okay with you.
- Teach children how to talk about their emotions. Just as you need to help your children develop their emotional vocabulary to talk about their feelings, you also need to encourage the normal talking about feelings in the household. Many of us were raised not to talk about our emotions, creating a belief that emotions are taboo. Emotional rigidity can often result. By talking freely about emotions with our children, we normalize the act and help children develop this skill. The more they become comfortable with their feelings, the easier it is to build flexibility in feeling and responding.
- Use books and movies as content for emotional detective games with your children. I love stories in any form. Most people do, especially children. Using stories to practice one’s emotional vocabulary is a great way to nurture both talking about emotions and psychological flexibility. Use bedtime stories, family movie time, and other opportunities to talk about emotions. Ask children to figure out what the various character feel based on their actions or facial expressions and words. Go deep with the different types of emotions. Talk about other feelings the actions may indicate. Through this practice, children learn how layered and complicated emotions can be.
- Develop creative problem-solving skills with your children. We love playing games in our house. Card games, board games, and weird, problem-solving activities. We love it all. Playing creative games develops our creativity and problem-solving skills. Board games like Quelf and Apples to Apples increase flexible thinking skills. The Spontaneous Activities associated with Odyssey of the Mind are another great way to develop creative thinking skills. The more this muscle is exercised, the easier it is to teach response flexibility and develop emotional intelligence.
- Encourage children to “move through” their feelings, not block or ignore them. When your child encounters a pervasive emotion—be it positive, negative or neutral, help them move through the feeling. With big negative emotions, in particular, we tend to tell kids to just push through, to switch thinking without actually “feeling” whatever they are feeling. Instead, encourage your child to try to understand the feeling—what the feeling is, why they are feeling it and what they can do next. This will help them process the emotions at the moment instead of either storing them and exploding later or ignoring them and detaching from all feelings. It is important to note that sometimes we can’t process through emotions at the moment, like during a crisis. If this happens, it is fine to put the processing “on hold.” It’s essential, however, to re-evaluate the emotions as soon as possible after the crisis has passed.
Emotional flexibility is not a frequently discussed skill. Given the general lack of happiness our children are feeling, and the rapid increase in hopelessness and suicidal ideations5, maybe this needs to change. Developing intention flexibility is the key to nurturing empathic and resilient children4.
1. Fonseca, C. (in press). The Caring Child: Raising Empathetic and Emotionally Intelligent Children. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
2. Graham, L. (2013). Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being. Novato, CA: New World Library.
3. McGonigal, K. (2015). The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good For You, and How to Get Good At It. New York, NY: Avery.
4. Qiao-Tasserit, E., Corradi-Dell’Acqua, C., & Vuilleumier, P. (2017). The good, the bad, and the suffering. Transient emotional episodes modulate the neural circuits of pain and empathy. Neuropsychologia, 116, 99-116. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2017.12.027
5. Twenge, J. M., Joiner, T. E., Rogers, M. I., & Martin, G. N. (2018). Increases in depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates among U.S. Adolescents after 2010 and links to increased new media screen time. Clinical Psychological Science, 6, 3-17. doi:10.1177/2167702617723376.
6. Twenge, J. M. (2019). The sad state of happiness in the United States and the role of digital media (World Happiness Report). Retrieved from https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2019/the-sad-state-of-happiness-in-the-united-states-and-the-role-of-digital-media/.