Toxic Positivity Is Taking A Toll On Our Children

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mother playing with children

We start hearing the admonitions as soon as our children become mobile.

The kid stumbles, tumbling to the ground as she takes her first steps.

She walks into the wall, not paying attention to where she’s going. “Don’t make a big deal of it,” someone says. “If you do, she’ll milk it for all it’s worth.”

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Or even before that, when they’re in the crib, crying for no apparent reason.

“He’s fed and changed. He doesn’t need anything. If you go to him now, he’ll expect you to do it every time.”

The common wisdom is that the more responsive we are to our children when they are emotionally or physically hurting, the more reliant they’ll be on us. And nobody wants a dependent child. Right?

Toxic positivity starts small but begins a trend of minimizing bigger issues.

“You’re fine.”

Many of us don’t think much about saying this when an adventurous toddler tumbles to the ground.

We say the same when a separation-anxious child, left with someone we know is a perfectly good caregiver, nonetheless sobs and thrashes when she realizes she’s alone with this stranger.

And we mean it. We know, from the outside, that the kid is fine, despite the real feelings the child is having.

Soon this becomes a habit, and we begin minimizing bigger issues.

The girls were picking on you at school? You’re fine. They’re just brats.

You’re worried about being laughed at during your performance? You’re fine.

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You’re scared about what happens when we die? You’re fine. Just stop thinking about it.

The girl in the bathroom asked to see your underwear? You’re fine. Just tell her no and don’t hang out with her.

You’re missing someone close to you? You’re fine. Just think about all the good times you had together.

It’s hard not to fall into this rhythm with my kids. I’m so wrapped up in my own world that I can’t handle being continually interrupted by their childish concerns, which I’m certain will amount to nothing.

I have a plan for how each day will go, and stopping to talk about our feelings is never accounted for in that plan.

Taking time out of the day for something that doesn’t have an immediate implication for my life is a threat to the smooth operation of my day, and sometimes I just can’t tolerate it.

Objectively, I know they’re fine. There’s no threat to their being. So I tell them they’re fine and get on with my own worrying.

Toxic positivity tells children their feelings aren’t important

But this wishful-thinking approach often creates more problems than it solves.

It might seem effective in the short term because it gets the kid to push down their feelings so they don’t bother you with them. But, in the long term, it’s going to cost both you and the child a lot more emotional energy, frustration, and time.

If a child is expressing worry or sadness about something, even if you know there is no objective threat to their safety, then clearly they are not fine.

And asserting a kid is fine when they don’t feel fine shows them a disconnect between what you say (“you can talk to me” and “It’s okay to have feelings”) and what you do (ignore their feelings when they’re inconvenient).

Adults who ignore their emotions can come to suffer from things like anxiety, depression, outbursts, and physical manifestations like headaches and stomach pain, just to name a few.

And all the time we’re teaching our children that only the emotions we view as positive are worthy of our time and discussion. What are they supposed to do with their worry, fear, and sadness, when the people they trust have demonstrated these feelings are unwelcome?

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Because they’re not allowed to talk about their problematic feelings, children don’t know what to do with them. They feel guilty when they feel sad or scared. All these primary and secondary emotions build up and can come out as learning and attention difficulties, trouble with friendships, acting out, and other sleep and behavior disturbances.

What’s more, the older they get, and the more accustomed they get to have their feelings minimized, the less likely it is they’ll come to us when something of consequence does happen — when they’re pressured to try a substance for the first time, or when they’re thinking of being intimate with a partner, or when someone crosses a line with them.

Acknowledge and give space for all feelings, and model working through them

It can be hard to make space for your kids’ feelings (or your own!), especially if you’re in a pattern of toxic positivity. Here are some things to remember:

Start now.

Whether your child is an infant or an adult, you can begin having a productive dialogue around emotions by simply acknowledging their feelings and being present for them.

Contrary to prevailing advice, being responsive to your child’s needs (comforting them when they’re distressed, acknowledging their feelings, and helping them work through difficult situations) is actually a hallmark of a secure attachment relationship between parent and child (not to be confused with attachment parenting). This kind of relationship is an indicator of positive relationships later on in life.

Ask questions.

When your child is old enough to talk to you, ask them how difficult situations make them feel.

Ask them how they need you to help. Sometimes kids want us to fix things for them, or to help them remember strategies they’ve used successfully in the past, but often they just need a space to air their grievances. Giving them the space they need now will save you a ton of time and frustration in the longer term.

Teach by example.

This is often the hardest part for me because when I’m feeling a certain way, I don’t generally want to exit out of the situation and meta-analyze it for my kids.

But a simple, “I’m feeling really sad right now,” can normalize for kids that it’s okay to feel sad, and it’s okay to talk about it when you do. It’s tempting to shy away from this, particularly if it’s a situation where talking about your feelings can stir up strong emotions for your child (if I talk about my sadness over the loss of a loved one, it could stir up sadness for them, too), but it is the best way to help your children forge a healthy relationship with their feelings.

It’s okay to swing toward positivity.

For many of us, it’s natural and healthy to try and swing toward optimism. But it’s also important to be realistic. If your child is hurting, or if a situation just plain sucks, acknowledge their feelings and talk about them rather than saying, “You’re fine,” and moving straight to the rose-colored glasses.

It might go against our deeply ingrained patterns, but taking five minutes to talk with our kids about their feelings now will save us hours of school meetings and therapy appointments later on.

And, above all, acknowledging your child’s feelings and helping them move through them productively will help them grow into an independent adult who can form strong relationships and solve their own problems.

Nikki Kay writes fiction, poetry, personal essays about parenting, mental health, and the intersection of the two. Check out her column at Invisible Illness.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.