Raise Assertive Kids in 8 Easy Steps

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In the past two days, two wonderful small moments occurred. The first happened during a chemistry lesson in my daughter’s classroom yesterday morning. When the teacher asked for volunteers to read the conclusion of the experiment out loud, my daughter raised her hand high in the air. Sounds like no big deal, right? The thing is that my daughter is never the first to raise her hand. She prefers to blend in and though she often knows the answers and yearns to show her teachers that, she doesn’t always speak up. To volunteer before the others and read in front of the class in a clear, strong voice is a big deal.

The second wonderful small moment occurred during her classroom Valentine’s Day celebration this afternoon. When another student offered to share extra balloons (he brought more than he needed), she jumped at the chance to get one. Again, this probably seems like the day in the life of a nine-year-old, except that my daughter typically thinks of others first and never reacts so quickly in such situations. She was beaming with pride when she recounted her ability to really speak up and use her voice this week. It’s something she thinks about often, and I see her working through her ambivalence about assertive communication as she grows.

Some kids are naturally more assertive than others. It can be hard to find the line between assertive communication and aggressive communication, and some kids hang out in the land of passive in an effort to be polite and respectful (like my daughter). The problem, of course, is that assertive communication is essential to building healthy working and personal relationships. Kids need to learn how to communicate their feelings, thoughts and needs in an assertive manner.

What does it mean to be “assertive”?

Being assertive means speaking up in an honest and respectful way. Assertive people stand tall, make good eye contact and speak clearly. They don’t talk over others, but they don’t let others talk over them. Assertive kids use their communication skills to do the following:

  • Give opinions
  • Ask for help
  • Express their needs
  • Disagree in a respectful manner
  • Offer suggestions
  • Speak up for others

What should I do if my child isn’t assertive?

Remain calm. You can’t force a child to become more assertive simply by saying it. Learning to assert yourself takes time and practice.

The truth is that one of the most frequently asked questions in my inbox is this: How can I teach my child to be more assertive with her/his friends (or teachers…or coaches)? If your child hasn’t found her voice yet, she’s not alone. You can practice these skills in the (emotional) safety of your home, and that will help your child find her voice.

8 Steps to more assertive kids:

Review communication styles.

Role play is always the best way to practice social skills. More often than not, kids aren’t aware of their own communication styles. They might think they speak assertively, when really they tend to have a more passive or aggressive style.

Using real life scenarios (provided by your child), act out the three communications styles. How would a passive (quiet voice, looks to the floor, has difficulty finding the words) person handle talking to a teacher about a grade? How would an aggressive (loud voice, has trouble listening, talks over the teacher) communicator cope? How can your child use assertive (practice first, maintain eye contact, ask questions, speak clearly) communication to resolve the problem?

Practice eye contact.

It can be really hard to look someone in the eye when you’re trying your best to hide in plain sight. I would know. I was one of those kids. Work hard and keep your head down – the rest will fall into place. Yeah, eventually I had to learn to speak up.

I always practice conversations that I know will be difficult or presentations in the mirror. Looking in the mirror helps you practice making eye contact in a safe place. After a few rounds in the mirror, try the same conversation with a family member. Another fun strategy? Make videos and replay them to see check for eye contact and voice tone.

Teach “I” statements.

A big part of assertive communication involves expressing your needs without blaming others or ignoring the needs of others. The key to doing this is learning the art of “I” statements.

When my kids struggle to assert their feelings, I always ask them three questions: What are you feeling? What are you thinking? What do you need? This cues them to tap into “I” statements.

Practice the art of debate.

Kids who struggle to assert themselves tend to avoid conversations that involve personal opinions. Sometimes they worry about what others will think. Other times they worry about hurting someone else’s feelings. Respectful communication does include healthy debates and disagreeing in a respectful manner, however, and kids do need to learn this skill.

Host a kitchen table debate over the weekend! Pick a topic (gummy worms versus jelly beans), have all family members (even you!) come up with their own opinions on the matter and debate the issue.

Create a word wall.

Okay, maybe it’s more like a phrase wall. Kids internalize the messages we send verbally, but nonverbal messages also go a long way toward helping kids learn to speak up.

One day, on a whim, I covered my daughter’s closet door with positive phrases like, “I can make a difference” and “I am kind and caring”. She loved it. I see her reading it often and she repeats some of the phrases when she needs them.

Have a personal motto.

Sometimes a calming, confident phrase helps kids remember to use their strong voices. I often encourage kids to come up with their own personal motto to use when they need to be strong and assertive.

Your kids should come up with their own phrases to inspire confidence, but something like, “When I use my strong voice, I solve my own problems” helps inspire assertive behavior.

Remain calm.

One of the hallmarks of assertive communication is staying calm when asserting your thoughts or needs. To that end, it helps to practice some calming behaviors:

  • Count to 10 before you respond
  • Take 3 deep breaths
  • Relax your facial muscles
  • Repeat your motto

Replace “I don’t know” and “I don’t care”.

Kids who rely on passive communication often answer questions with “I don’t know” or “I don’t care”. They do this to avoid debate, hurting someone else’s feelings or causing additional stress to another. These phrases create bad habits, though. It becomes second nature and they miss out on getting their needs met.

When you hear “I don’t know” or “I don’t care”, cue your child to start again with “I prefer”. They might not get their needs met every time they ask, but they do need to learn to express their wants and needs.

The Happy Kid Handbook includes a chapter dedicated to teaching assertiveness skills – grab your copy today!

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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 the forthcoming "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)