How Toxic Positivity Impacts Children

Can positivity ever be a bad thing? Ever heard someone say to you, “Cheer up and try to look on the bright side,” when going through something?

If you have, then you most likely experienced some form of toxic positivity. Staying happy and positive about everything isn’t always a good thing.

So then, what is toxic positivity? Toxic positivity is a term that describes the notion of excessively forcing a happy and optimistic state of mind across all situations. While being positive is desirable, it should be emphasised that feelings like optimism and happiness are not a perpetual state. Emotions whether negative or difficult, are real and deserve to be addressed equally like that of the positive ones. This is especially true during childhood and adolescence as children are beginning to experience various complex emotional states.

What does toxic positivity in parenting look like?

Imagine your child comes to you after having an awful day and they want to tell you about it. Toxic positivity might look like:

  • Overusing positive phrases. If your go-to response to hard moments are, for example, ‘don’t be sad, you’ll get over it,’ ‘have a better attitude,’ ‘everything happens for a reason, just shake it off,’ and ‘other people have it worse,’ then this is a sign of toxic positivity. While there is a place and time for these statements, over-reliance on them is not a good thing.
  • Talking about feelings like anger or sadness as if they are bad. While negative or difficult emotions can be naturally unwanted, they are not inherently bad and doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them. Feeling and expressing a range of emotions is part of growing up and the value of negative feelings in children’s lives should be acknowledged.

How does toxic positivity impact children?

Despite good intentions, toxic positivity is not usually helpful and can in fact do more harm than good to children. Toxic positivity can:

  • Invalidate their feelings and minimise the problems they are facing. To children, this can feel very dismissive and can make them feel like they aren’t being heard. As a result, their confidence in their parents’ ability to support them could be undermined and reduce their desire to be open and communicate their issues and feelings in the future. This can further impact friendships and relationships later on in their life.
  • Stigmatise negative feelings and be internalised. Being told to constantly deny the negative and focus on the positive affects the way children think about emotions. It teaches them that negative feelings are bad, and you’re not supposed to feel things like anger, sadness, loneliness, etc. This can lead to feelings of guilt or shame for having them and the need to repress certain emotions to be approved by others. Furthermore, it can worsen a child’s psychological and emotional distress which can later develop into mental health issues like anxiety or depression.
  • Remove the opportunity for growth and learning. Forcing positivity and pushing aside negative feelings does not simply make them go away. This discourages children from learning to identify and process emotions therefore, not allowing the chance for children to build emotional resilience and regulate emotions in healthy ways. As a result, it may lead to behavioural issues and risky behaviours as a coping mechanism.

Instead of toxic positivity, what can you do?

Healthier ways to respond to children can include:

  • Acknowledging and validating their feelings. Instead of constantly using overly positive statements, give words of reassurance and show empathy. For example, ‘It’s okay to cry, I love you no matter what you feel,’ ‘I’m sorry, that sounds like it was really hard. I’m here to listen,’ ‘I can see you’re sad. I’m here for you,’. Sometimes, just simply enduring a difficult experience with your child without fully understanding the situation can be a powerful bonding and trust building moment.
  • Providing support and being a role model. Create a safe space for children to feel their emotions and to express them honestly. Listen with patience and ask questions to understand them better. By allowing them to talk through and identify things, it helps them to examine their feelings and reveal potential meanings that may provide information about themselves. Additionally, showing similar support for family, friends, or partners when they are going through a rough time in front of children sets a good example.
  • Practicing mindfulness and meditation with them. Helping children to be present with their emotional state can allow them to tolerate the discomfort of negative or difficult feelings. It teaches them that it’s not about controlling or managing every feeling that arises, rather it is about acknowledgement of the emotion and not judging oneself for feeling this way. This not only allows for better emotional regulation, but to also normalise negative emotions and foster a healthy relationship with their feeling.

As a parent, you can impart the value of positivity to your children but at the same time, it is important to allow them to grow into themselves and all of their emotions. Emotions are like waves and instead of fighting the water, you ride the wave.

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