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If you want to raise strong and confident kids, teaching assertiveness is key. Assertive children know how to stand up for themselves (and others) without being hurtful or mean. They can say “no,” communicate clearly, and maintain positive relationships that meet their own needs as well as those of others.
“Assertiveness works in all situations, giving kids guidelines for navigating everything from the playground to the slumber party. It helps kids have healthy relationships and a solid self-esteem.”
-Margarita Tartakovsky, psychologist
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Few of us are born assertive, and the fear of seeming rude or selfish can prevent us from advocating for ourselves. Fortunately, with practice, we can help kids master this powerful ability, and gain the many benefits associated with assertive communication.
Here are the 5 ways to get started:
1. Talk About It
Tell kids there are 3 basic styles of communication. Each time we speak or interact with other people, we choose one of these methods: passive, aggressive, or assertive.
We can figure out our communication style by looking for clues in our words and actions:
For young kids, try using animals to represent each style. Let them brainstorm different creatures associated with the 3 types: passive (a turtle in his shell or a mouse that runs and hides), aggressive (a tiger who attacks or bear that roars), and assertive (a wise owl or calm family dog who barks at danger).
- Praise kids for using their assertive or “owl” communication when handling a tricky situation (“I like how you spoke up!”)
- Read “The Mouse, the Monster, and Me: Assertiveness For Young People” by Pat Palmer
- Point out passive, aggressive and assertive behavior in their favorite movies and TV shows (Officer Judy Hopps in Zootopia or Frozen’s Anna are great examples of assertiveness). Note how the characters around them react to each type
Finally, think of communication as a spectrum, with passivity at one end and aggression at the other--assertiveness is the “sweet spot” in between. Remind kids that regardless of which style they currently use the most, they can learn to be assertive!
2. Define Boundaries
Discuss how there are boundaries in the world, or lines that should not be crossed. These exist on a physical level, like stop signs or even “personal bubbles” (the space around our bodies) as well as emotional boundaries (things that hurt our feelings).
One way to respect these boundaries is by discussing the power of “no.” Whether it’s an unwanted hug from grandma or a bossy friend on the playground, kids need to hear that assertively saying no is not only acceptable--it’s their right.
“If we want our kids to learn to listen to their guts and be comfortable expressing their own limits, and standing up for them, we need to let them practice that skill from a young age.”
-Sue Lively, teacher and parenting writer
Consider these ideas:
- Explain that setting boundaries (saying “no,” “stop” or “I don’t like that”) keeps our bodies and minds safe and healthy
- Support kids in saying “no” over negotiable issues (not wanting to wear certain clothing, hug someone or read a particular book are good places to start)
- Review the “Circle of Control” poster and discuss how we can only be in charge of our own feelings and behavior, not the behavior or reactions of others
- Read “Listening to My Body” by Gabi Garcia to stay connected to the important sensations and emotional cues our bodies send us
Assertive communication means considering the needs of others, but never at our own expense. I often say to my daughter, “If it’s not kind to you, then it’s not kind at all.”
3. Teach “I” Messages
Of all the conflict resolution strategies that exist, the “I” message is my all-time favorite. It’s easy to use, and resolves problems like no other.
Here’s the simple formula: “I feel (insert feeling) when you (insert behavior). I would like you to (insert request).”
When my daughter experienced a situation at the playground (other girls said she couldn’t play with them), we practiced my suggestion:
“I feel angry when you tell me I can’t play. I would like you to let me join in.
Then my daughter came up with her own:
“I feel hurt when you leave me out. I’d like you to stop saying I can’t play.”
Know that “I” messages work because they are non-judgmental. They neither blame nor criticize, and keep the listener from feeling attacked or defensive.
You might also try:
- Practicing similar assertive phrases: ”I need more space”/”I don’t like it when…”/”I think…”
- Using a mirror to practice (check for eye contact and confident posture)
- Sharing the positive impact of “I” messages: “I loved how you used that ‘I’ message to tell me what you wanted. It made me feel like I wanted to help you.”
4. Build Friendship Skills
Start by talking with your child about the qualities she wants in a friend. What kinds of things make a good friend? How do friends act?
Share the characteristics YOU look for, and be sure to say that you work hard to be the kind of friend you want.
Next, discuss how friendship conflicts are normal sometimes and are actually opportunities to grow your assertiveness skills. Identify some common sources of disagreement, and make a list together. This might include:
- Not enjoying the same activities at recess
- Feeling left out when your friend plays or talks to someone else
- A friend who brags frequently
- Being excluded from a birthday party
Try to identify 1-2 solutions for each of these scenarios, and role-play how to handle them (using an ‘I’ message is a great start). While a “perfect friendship” does not exist, all relationships benefit from the openness and honesty that assertiveness allows.
Check out the Friendship Challenge in our Challenges Kit. It has fun activities to help develop positive friendships.
5. Model Confidence
We know that kids watch what we do more than what we say. If we hope to raise confident kids, it’s crucial to communicate assertively in our own lives. Not always the easiest thing!
You might start by:
- Speaking up when you need to, and letting your child see you say (and stick to) “no”
- Discussing the times assertiveness is difficult for you, and how you overcome it by practicing
- Using a calm, confident voice when stating your views
- Praise (and even reward) yourself when you do well
Another way to model assertiveness is through active listening. During a conflict, simply restate what the other person has said before you respond. This is especially impactful when the disagreement is with your child: “You’re saying ‘no’ to the blue dress today. I hear you” or “You really want to watch the fireworks. It seems like the other kids all get to stay up late.”
“There is no better way to teach your child to be assertive than to show him how to do it.”
-Deidre Parsons, parenting writer
Assertiveness takes practice for all of us. But modeling assertive communication allows both us and our kiddos to reap its powerful benefits, including confidence, high self-esteem and positive relationships.