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Toxic Positivity and The Power of Negative Feelings

Have you ever heard the saying, “It’s okay not to be okay”? This is a phrase meant to validate one’s emotions and normalize the experience of having negative feelings. As adults, we are aware that not all days are going to be good days and that life is filled with obstacles along the way. This is a sentiment that we have become familiar with as time goes on, but when is there a right time to teach children that life isn’t always rainbows and butterflies?

Toxic Positivity and Its Effect on Children

Toxic Positivity refers to when someone uses a positive approach to a difficult situation and rejects any negative thoughts associated with that situation. This can often minimize and invalidate one’s authentic emotions. Popular phrases associated with this term that you may be familiar with are, “it’s going to be fine,” “it could be worse,” or “everything happens for a reason.” While these are well-intended words used in an effort to support one through a difficult situation, they can also lack recognition of deeper emotions that need to be addressed.

In 2006, Campbell-Sills, Barlow, Brown, and Hofmann studied the difference in physiological effects between people who were asked either to suppress or accept their emotions while watching an emotion-provoking film. The researchers found that while the subjective responses were equal in both groups, the participants who were asked to suppress their emotions showed an increased heart rate following the film. Researchers have concluded that repeated suppressed emotions are linked to higher levels of  negative affect, lower levels of positive affect, poorer social adjustment, and decreased wellbeing.

It is important to recognize that adults are not the only ones subject to toxic positivity. Children can be affected equally by such language and response. Young children are often taught that “good” behavior is rewarded and “bad” behavior is punished.” Children may categorize negative feelings such as sadness, anger, and pain, as “bad” feelings. This can discourage children from communicating with parents about these emotions and, therefore, fail to address the child’s worries. Adults have a strong impact on how children learn to respond to disappointment, failure, and loss. They can provide children with the appropriate tools for facing difficulties and struggles in the future.

Recognizing and Rephrasing

Acknowledging and validating feelings is the first step in avoiding toxic positivity. The following phrases can be used as non-toxic alternatives when providing support to your child:

  • “How are you feeling today?”

  • “I know times are difficult right now and things aren’t going easy. What are things we can focus on right now to help you?”

  • “I can see you are feeling ------ and I am here to listen.”

  • “Sometimes we experience hard things. How can I help you?”

  • “I know this is difficult, but I believe in you.”

  • “This must be hard. Do you want to tell me about it or do something to take your mind off it?”

  • “I can see how that’s disappointing and it’s normal to feel that way.”

  • “It is okay if you don’t feel happy or positive at this moment. Feel your emotions as they come.”

Developing Resilience and Strength

Aside from improving the way we respond to children and their negative emotions, we can also promote resiliency by setting realistic expectations. This helps encourage child