“I don’t like…” (Tips for teaching assertiveness skills)

Riley recently came home from school and made the following statement:  “My friend told me Justin Beaver is the best singer, so I think I really like him best”.  My dislike of all things “Bieber Fever” aside, it hit me that Riley is just now entering the age of peer influence.  Ugh.  I looked at her and said, “Did you tell your friend who your favorite singer is?” to which she replied, “no, because she said Justin Beaver is just really the BEST singer”.  And cue the assertiveness training.  This one was a quick fix.  45 seconds into her first “Justin Beaver” song Riley realized this was not the music for her, but the real issue is teaching her to be just as confident in her choices.  The Beaver is not everyone, after all.

Assertiveness skills can be hard to teach but are an important part of being an effective communicator.  Children who can assert their needs are more likely to have high self-esteem, better communication skills, and are more likely to resist peer pressure. We have to be careful not to push assertiveness training on youngsters though, as this can sometimes have an opposite effect on introverted children.  Some kids actually don’t mind moving on if a toy gets taken…it’s a healthy coping strategy!

Being assertive means confidently expressing your wants or needs without imposing those wants or needs on others. This is not to be confused with being aggressive, however, which means directly imposing your wants or needs on others, sometimes using force.

So how do we gently instill assertiveness skills in our little ones so that they are better able to ask for help, make friends, enjoy play dates, and communicate with peers and adults? It’s a slow process at best, but it’s never too early to start.  Below are some tips to help you help your child learn to assert his needs:

1. Listen Up: We all get distracted sometimes, but taking the time to actually sit and listen to your child (no matter how many times you’ve heard the same story) is the first step toward helping your child feel heard and valued. Ask follow up questions.  Take an interest in all things make-believe and playground related.  When they know that their thoughts are valued, they are more likely to speak up. Show your child that her thoughts matter by using your best active listening skills.

2. Teach liking vs. idolizing: Peer worship starts early.  Some kids are natural performers and seem to command the spotlight, while others are quiet and content on the sidelines.  She who talks the most and the loudest gets the most attention (good and bad), and it’s easy for quiet kids to fall into the trap of peer worship (even if they are the loud kid at home).  Remind your child of his strengths when he starts to become hyper-focused on the strengths of his peer. Sometimes kids need to hear that they are funny, artistic, hard-working, etc. too.

3. Model assertive talk: Around 2 ½, children start playing together and communicating.  This is a great age to jump in and model ways to solve dilemmas over toys and turn taking. Letting them “work it out” will come later; teach first.  Use a calm, but assertive voice when you need to assert your needs (like when your wireless never works). The best way to teach effective communication skills is by using them.

4. Encourage individual thinking: Riley has been putting together “fancy” outfits for quite some time.  She also has an imagination that is unmatched and creates piles of original artwork.  While some preschoolers are focused on drawing things that look “real”, Riley is consumed by elaborate designs and takes pride in the fact that they are almost impossible to replicate.  She’s creative, to say the least.  Praising them for effort and original ideas shows that you are genuinely interested in their thoughts and ideas. Encourage the wacky outfits, different taste in music, and creative/silly ideas and watch their self-esteem flourish!

5. Role play: If your child is able to verbalize feeling bad when another child takes his toy or feeling left out at times, practice ways to handle these scenarios in the future. Some kids become shy when it comes to role-playing, but puppets can really help.  Make up a story about a rabbit taking a bone from a dog and problem-solve ways for the dog to speak up.

6. Teach “I” statements: The keys to speaking assertively are:  Making eye contact, speaking clearly, and focusing on “I” statements. Practice saying, “I don’t like it when you take my toys” or “I feel angry when you don’t share”.  Start these statements when they’re two and you will have a preschooler well versed in the art of sharing his feelings!

7. Teach feelings words: Often kids become aggressive because they don’t have the language to verbalize their needs in an appropriate manner.  Teach them the meaning of sad, mad, grumpy, excited, frustrated, worried, scared, and happy. Point out times when they feel this way and talk about what their face looks like, how their body feels, and what triggered the feeling.  Use that feelings faces chart that I know you have posted in your kitchen!

The ability to be assertive isn’t always in our DNA, it took me years find my assertive voice, but it can be learned.  Start early and give your child the gift of high self-esteem!

How do you help your child with assertiveness skills? 

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)