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How Toxic Positivity Can Affect Your Child

When too much of good thing becomes a bad thing.

Key points

  • Positivity and optimism are good qualities, but they should not interfere with children's opportunities to learn to manage hard emotions.
  • Hard emotions — when paced with development and supportive environments — can instill resilience in children.
  • Children need their caregiver's support, patience, and examples of how to handle hard emotions.

By Maihcen Ware, Adam A. Rogers, and Noah Chojnacki.

"Children have very deep feelings. Just the way parents do, just the way everybody does. And our striving to understand those feelings, and to better respond to them, is what I feel is the most important task in the world." —Fred Rogers

Imagine that you are 9 years old. You just had an awful day at school. You go to your parents and tell them all about it. They respond simply: “Just have a better attitude!”

Did that help?

This might be an example of toxic positivity. Toxic positivity may sound like an oxymoron. After all, how can positivity be a bad thing? But if there’s one thing that children and teens say in our research, it’s that when it comes to handling stress, too much positivity might actually be a bad thing.

What Is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity refers to “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across situations.”(1) While optimism and positivity are certainly valuable qualities that we should all incorporate, we should also acknowledge that happiness is not a perpetual state. This is especially true during childhood and adolescence, when youth are just beginning to understand complex emotional states, including an appreciation for the emotional highs and lows that make us human.

Challenging or aversive emotional states, such as sadness and anger, are a part of life. Youth need opportunities to build emotional resilience, and this happens as they learn to identify, process and manage a broad range of emotions in healthy ways. Unfortunately, an over-emphasis on positivity in response to a child's negative emotions (e.g., "other people have it worse" or "you'll get over it") — though well-intended — can unintentionally stigmatize these emotional states and remove important opportunities for growth and learning.

Perhaps more problematic is that excessive positivity in response to children's and adolescents’ negative emotions can easily be interpreted by our youth as being dismissive. If a child feels like she is not heard, it can undermine her confidence that her parents' are capable of assisting them. This can reduce a child's openness and communication about issues that are bothering them in the future.

Growing research indicates that parental dismissiveness of children’s negative emotions can actually worsen or escalate the child's psychological and emotional distress. For example, studies show that parental overriding of children's negative emotions is associated with increases in anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and physical illness. The explanation is simple: When children's distress is overlooked, they are left without resources or support in handling these emotions on their own, and emotional distress compounds.

In contrast, when caregivers take the time to validate and be present with their children in their negative emotional states (e.g., "I love you no matter what you feel" or "I can tell that this is hard for you; let me know when you're ready to talk about it"), it communicates to a child that his or her experiences and perspectives are valid and it sustains trust and open lines of communication. Over time, it can help children develop a mastery of even the most challenging emotions. Our own research has shown that teens whose parents are more supportive in response to their child's negative emotional states, such as through listening, asking questions, and reassuring, have markedly better emotional health.

So when does positivity become excessive?

So how can we identify toxic positivity in our interactions with our children? Here are a few research-based suggestions.

Overusing positive phrases

When we find that our go-to advice to our child during hard moments is something like, “Just smile!” or “Everything happens for a reason, just shake it off!” This could be a sign of toxic positivity. These encouraging phrases or silver-linings certainly have a place, but over-reliance on them may actually end up invalidating our child's feelings and minimizing the problems they are facing. Instead, we can blend messages of positivity with perspective-taking and empathy, such as, “I’m sorry, that sounds like it was really hard,” or, “It's okay to cry about this.” Enduring a painful experience with our children — even when we might not fully understand their situation — can be a powerful catalyst for trust.

Thinking that anger or sadness are bad things

It's natural to find negative emotions undesirable, but we should resist the perception that difficult emotions are inherently bad. Feeling and expressing a variety of emotions is part of what makes us human. While we enjoy feelings of happiness, joy, hope, and excitement, we can also learn to acknowledge the value of difficult feelings in our lives.

Creating space for our children to feel sadness, fear, or anger and express these in appropriate ways actually leads to more emotional control and resilience. As a result, we can be careful in our speech to not associate negative emotional states with failure or stigma. Further, instead of repression or restriction of these emotional states, we can show our teens how to step back, examine these feelings and their potential meaning, and the important information they may provide about themselves.

Making failure inexcusable

A popular mantra is that “failure is not an option.” Much to the contrary, failure is a part of life, and in fact is a key ingredient in personal growth. A somewhat ironic byproduct of toxic positivity is a perfectionism that seeks to convey an absence of failure or even difficulty in life. However, success is most likely to happen in spite of failure, but often times because of it. Failing — sometimes repeatedly — provides opportunities to learn and grow into more capable and effective individuals.

We can teach our children the important value of optimism at the same time as helping them to feel all of their authentic emotions.

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