Positivity vs. flexibility: why one over the other?

It’s hard to avoid the “be positive” culture we see all over social media. It seems as though the key to happiness is to be positive 24/7. But for our children and youth (and ourselves!), trying to focus on happiness and positivity all the time can actually prevent us from being happy. A fitting name for this phenomenon… toxic positivity. Because it can be just that, toxic.

What is toxic positivity? It’s defined as a dysfunctional approach to managing our emotions that happens when people do not fully acknowledge other emotions such as sadness or anger, and instead preach the idea that everyone should be happy, positive and joyful.

As child life specialists, we absolutely believe in the power of positivity; on a daily basis, we work with children and youth to reframe negative experiences into positive experiences to help reduce stress and anxiety. However, before the reframing begins, we always take some time to acknowledge whatever a child or youth may be feeling, even if it’s “negative”.

We use that word negative lightly, though – emotions such as sadness, anger or frustration really aren’t negative at all since we know acknowledging our feelings helps with emotional regulation, feeling more in control, and making better decisions. That’s why we really do need them. A spectrum of emotions helps teach us, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable at the time. That’s why instead of preaching “be positive!” we should encourage the mindset of “be flexible!”. Studies show that people who practiced a more flexible mindset found better ways to deal with negative moods and experienced less depression.

So next time your or your children are experiencing negative emotions, think about them. Why are you feeling this way? What can you do next time to feel better? What are you learning from this? Once you start looking at these moments of discomfort as learning opportunities and really thinking about how it affects you, you will learn you can handle anything.

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