Teaching children the art of being assertive, confidently asserting your wants and needs without imposing those wants and needs on others, is one of the most common parenting concerns that comes my way.
We all want our kids to be able to speak up, ask for help, and stand up for others. We all want our kids to break free of the feelings that build walls around them so that they can walk confidently through life, getting their needs met along the way.
For many, being assertive, truly assertive, is a very long-term goal.
Assertiveness is closely tied to self-esteem, and fear of rejection, criticism, being seen as incapable, and the need for belonging often stops older kids from speaking up. Teens no longer have the market cornered on low self-esteem; it’s a difficult world out there for kids today. Developing a sense of belonging and knowing that they are valued are crucial to taking those first steps toward becoming assertive.
Below are a few tips to help you help your big kid practice being assertive.
1. Support Healthy Risks: Kids have big ideas. Sometimes a little too big. But sometimes, those ideas are just about right (even if they do feel a little too big to us). Whether it’s snowboarding, playing the guitar, writing, or rock climbing, give them a chance to try it out. Be supportive. Cheer them on. And, by all means, resist the urge to run in for the rescue at the first sign of distress. Kids need to learn that skill acquisition takes time, and that they can work through the necessary steps to get to the other side.
2. Allow for Mistakes: We all make mistakes. Whether it’s in parenting, at the office, or while driving a car, we all make mistakes at times. Kids are no different, and yet they often feel pressured to avoid mistakes at all costs. Sometimes to the point of avoiding taking even a very healthy risk. Avoid criticizing mistakes. Instead, discuss ways to problem solve for the next time. Talk about your mistakes. Share strategies that worked for you when you needed to fix a mistake and move on. Kids have a tendency to internalize even the smallest comments, particularly kids who are very sensitive. Try to be aware of your reactions and avoid placing blame.
3. Resist Comparisons: It’s a natural tendency of parents to start making comparisons once a second child comes along. Often these comparisons are fairly benign in nature. They talk about sleep patterns, eating habits, first words, and other milestones. But then there are the comparisons that are far less benign: Avoid comparing skill levels between children. It’s almost always a set-up for failure, and you never know when your kids are tuning in. It can be very damaging to the self-esteem of a child. **It’s also important to avoid making comparisons between your former self (the college athlete, the stellar musician, etc.) and your child. Other people’s stories are nearly impossible to live up to.
4. Praise Out Loud: Share your child’s accomplishments with others within earshot of your child as much as possible. Make sure to focus on effort, not just finished goals. Kids need to hear that taking a chance and making an effort is important. Kids have a tendency to focus on winning or completing projects. They lose sight of the fact that making an effort is important too.
5. Role-Play/Scripts: Practice makes perfect, or better, anyway. Come up with different scenarios where your child might need to be assertive (such as asking a teacher for help) and do a few role-plays. If role-playing is too much for your child, write out some scripts together and let him go over them on his own. Check back in later to see if he needs any help or wants to change anything in the script. Practicing assertiveness skills with a favorite teacher, coach, or relative first helps kids get used to asserting their needs in a safe environment.
6. Teach: Believe it or not, many kids just don’t understand what it means to be assertive. Provide a few definitions. Use role-play to demonstrate different communication styles. Passive: Avoiding saying what you think, feel, or believe because you are afraid of the possible consequences, do not believe in your own rights, or think the rights of others are more important. Passive communicators avoid conflict, have trouble saying no, and do not stand up for their rights. Passive people tend to become resentful. Aggressive: Saying what you want, feel, or believe in a way that denies other people’s right to be treated with respect. Aggressive communicators often use powerful language, speak in a loud voice, and do not care about the feelings of others. Aggressive people tend to scare others. Assertive: Saying what you think, feel, or believe in a straightforward, nonthreatening way. Assertive communicators make eye contact, speak in a confident voice, and express their needs effectively.
7. Assertiveness Rights: Kids respond well to visual cues. Together with your child, create an Assertiveness Bill of Rights. It might include things like: I have the right to say no, be respected by others, say I don’t know or I disagree, feel and express anger, be proud of my accomplishments, recognize my needs as important, etc. Be sure to let your child come up with as many of these rights as possible. This is a great first step toward being assertive.
8. Model Assertiveness: The best way to teach your child is to model the behaviors that you want them to internalize. When grocery shopping, at the mall, or at the movies, be sure to use effective communication skills when seeking help or talking to others. Point out these moments to your child and discuss what it felt like to assert your needs.
9. Avoid Shutting them Down: Kids ask for ten million things a day. By the end of the day, it’s easy to just start handing out no’s. If you have a child with low self-esteem or who struggles with asserting himself, an immediate no every time he asks a question feeds into his belief that his ideas aren’t important. Whenever possible, provide an older kid with a brief explanation and praise him for coming to you and asserting his needs. Sometimes they just need to know that it’s ok to ask.
10. Know When to Back Off: Having a child who struggles to assert himself is not an indicator of your parenting skills. For some, it takes many years to learnt o really speak up. Talk about it, work on it, and be there for your child. But don’t make it your only focus. Constantly zeroing in on one behavior can make kids anxious, which leads to a new set of behaviors to tackle. And if your child begs and begs and begs for you to please talk to that teacher for you? Jump in and help, but bring your child along so that he can watch the interaction. Process it after. Teachable moments are everywhere.
How have you helped your child learn to be assertive?