Making sure children know they have a voice is an important task. Learn how to teach your child to be assertive, with peers or adults.
At the park, an older child noticed my twins playing with sticks they had found on the ground.
“I want that,” he said, pointing to one of the sticks my son held in his hand.
“Here,” my son replied, handing him the shorter stick.
Even then, the boy didn’t relent, insisting he have the longer stick. At that point, I did something I knew I shouldn’t have done: I stepped in.
“Actually, that’s his stick,” I told the boy. “Maybe you can find another one to play with.”
I regretted stepping in right away, especially when I knew the benefits of letting kids resolve their social conflicts. But as a parent, my heart stung at the thought of an older child demanding something from my little guy.
How to teach your child to be assertive
As parents, we tread a fine line: we want assertive children who can stand up for themselves and others, ask for help, and voice their opinions. But we also don’t want aggression or bullying behavior, either.
It’s tricky to balance the two, and some kids struggle more than others with asserting themselves. Why is that? I learned that there are a few contributing factors:
- Confusion. Kids might not understand what another child is saying. Maybe they don’t know what they’re supposed to do, or what’s expected of them.
- Fear of doing something wrong. Many kids keep quiet when they don’t or shouldn’t have to because they’re afraid of making mistakes.
- Avoiding attention. Not all kids want attention, and some see assertive communication as drawing too much attention to themselves.
- Lack of experience. Kids, especially those who’ve only dealt with adults, may never have had to assert themselves or make their case before a new group of their peers.
So, how can you improve your child’s assertiveness skills, all while respecting their temperament? Here are some fun ways to do so:
1. Hold a round table
Want to encourage your child to speak up? Ask him for his opinion at the dinner table.
Dinnertime makes for a fantastic opportunity to encourage him to assert himself. Hold a “round table,” leading discussions and asking for his thoughts just as you would an adult. Have him elaborate on his favorite part of the day, or why he loves a certain book or toy. Encourage good eye-contact, and truly listen to what he says.
This allows him to feel comfortable expressing himself and his opinions.
If you have other children, make sure they all have a chance to speak by addressing them one by one. This is especially important if their communication style tends to be loud, or they dominate the conversation. You might say, “I want to hear what Charlie thinks, too.”
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2. Support your child’s ideas
My son told me he was going to give his grandma a cherry pit he’d saved from lunch so she could plant it in her yard. He wanted her to have yet another fruit tree, and cherries seemed like a good addition.
As promised, he handed the seed—carefully wrapped in cloth—to his grandma, who proceeded to plant it straight in her yard.
Neither she, my husband, nor I mentioned the unlikelihood of a tree ever sprouting from that seed. Any of us could’ve explained how difficult it is to grow a tree straight from fresh seed. Instead, we allowed his ideas to grow and even encouraged him to explain his reasons.
Your child might approach you with far-flung ideas, from why she thinks Saturn has rings to how long it can take to climb a mountain.
Don’t turn them down or explain why these theories aren’t possible. She’ll arrive at those conclusions on her own, and now isn’t the time for her to find out. Instead, she needs your support, to know you’ll listen and take interest in what she has to say.
3. Encourage your kids to speak for themselves
As heads of household, we tend to take charge and speak for our kids, many times out of necessity. But it doesn’t always have to be that way. Spot different scenarios where your child can speak for himself instead of relying on you to do so for him.
For instance, he can tell the waiter his order at a restaurant, or ask his teacher to open the classroom door because he forgot his backpack. He can tell the dentist which color toothbrush he likes, or ask the store manager how much a toy costs.
And don’t answer questions that are addressed to him. Many times, adults have asked my kids, “How old are you?” and I’ve been guilty of answering, “He’s four.” Turn to your child so he knows he has the space to respond.
4. Practice appropriate responses with your child
What happens if your child comes to you crying because he got into an argument with another child?
Use the opportunity to role-play and practice appropriate responses. Describe the situation, including how he responded. Start by asking him what he thinks he could do next time. If he can’t think of anything or is too young to do so, ask if you can make a few suggestions.
At this point, explain a few responses he can try. You might say, “If it happens again, first, stay calm. Then, in a kind but firm voice, you can tell the other child, ‘I’m not done playing with the toy yet’.”
By practicing how he’d respond, he can feel better prepared and build his self-esteem should a similar situation arise. If anything, he now knows that he can assert his own rights and wants instead of relenting or resorting to passivity.
5. Protect your child’s boundaries
My family has a custom of greeting everyone that arrives at a family party. If an aunt or uncle walked through the door, you were expected to get up and give them a hug or kiss. It didn’t matter how well you knew this person—you simply hugged everyone.
I’ve broken that tradition with my kids.
While I still teach the value of respect, especially for elders, I also don’t force my kids to hug and kiss others if they don’t want to (and especially if they’re going to throw a tantrum about it). I want them to learn that their physical boundaries are protected—that they have a voice in what’s okay or not okay.
To foster respect and politeness, I encourage them to develop genuine relationships with other adults in their lives. Now, instead of being forced to hug and kiss, they do so all on their own because they truly love these people.
And for people they don’t know (or for the times they’re not in the mood), I find other ways to encourage saying hello and showing respect. High-fives, waves, or even postponing the hugs and kisses once they’ve warmed up work well.
Forcing hugs when kids don’t feel like it sends conflicting messages. We want them to assert their personal boundaries, and then turn around and don’t respect them. Instead, allow your child to hold her ground, especially when it comes to her physical boundaries.
Understanding and meeting her emotional boundaries are important, too. If she feels down and wants time and space to be alone, don’t let others try to cheer her sadness away. Respect her need to be alone or away from a group of people without forcing your agenda on her.
6. Praise your child’s strong opinions
Does your child’s strong-willed personality challenge you? As frustrating as it can be to argue with her, having strong opinions isn’t a bad thing. Praise her for believing so strongly about a topic before suggesting different ways to say it.
Sometimes, we’re too quick to label strong personalities as bad, especially if they overshadow those around them. Instead, recognize that these are desirable traits that can be honed and corrected.
7. Don’t suppress difficult feelings
Difficult feelings like anger, sadness, and jealousy can be brushed under the rug. We see them as emotions that are better off not existing, favoring instead more pleasant feelings.
Problem is, we all experience a variety of feelings, including difficult ones. Suppressing them in our kids can send the wrong message that they should put up a front or shy away from certain emotions.
Instead, acknowledge that these feelings are normal and will pass, just as they do with everyone else. Knowing that it’s normal to feel what they do can help them be more confident.
8. Let your child choose
We tend to make most of the decisions for our kids, as we should. But sometimes we take it too far and forget that they can benefit from an opportunity to choose.
For instance, give your child a choice of picking any book he likes from the bookstore. Let her choose an outfit to wear for the day, or whether to go to the park or the pool. Choices allow her to exercise her free will and encourage motivation to follow through.
The trick is to be okay with either choice she picks. If offering a choice between the park or the pool, make sure you’re fine with going to either one.
Learning how to teach your child to be assertive is an important task, one that can take practice and time.
You can do this by supporting your child’s ideas and asking for his thoughts and opinions. Provide plenty of opportunities for him to speak for himself. When conflict arises, talk about different ways he could’ve responded so he knows what to do next time.
Protect his boundaries, whether physical or emotional. Don’t shy away from his strong opinions or suppress difficult feelings he may have. Finally, give him a choice when appropriate—this reassures him that his voice matters.
Discovering how to teach your child to be assertive can help him stand up for himself and voice his opinion. Even when an older child demands their stick at the playground.
Get more tips:
- Why We Need to Stop Telling Boys to “Man Up”
- On Accepting Your Children for Who They Are
- 3 Lessons Every Mom Bringing Up Boys Needs to Teach
- Why You Should Always Intervene when Adults Overwhelm Your Child
- 9 Playground Rules You and Your Kids Should Remember
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