How being assertive can be life-changing for your child

How can learning assertiveness skills ‘turn your child’s life around’? How can you raise an assertive child? Read on to find out…

By Dr Meghna Singhal  • 18 min read

How being assertive can be life-changing for your child

Situation 1: While playing in the apartment playground, 7 year-old Zoya and her friends find a new packet of colourful beads lying around. Her friend Shamli- the pack leader- immediately picks it up and the girls decide to distribute the beads among themselves. Zoya feels uncomfortable- if it was up to her, she would have returned the packet to the apartment security. But she knows that if she brings this up, her friends may taunt or mock her. Caught between her morals (she is usually able to distinguish right from wrong in making choices) and her desire to remain part of her peer group (she knows if she doesn’t do what they say, they won’t let her play with them), she freezes.

Situation 2: Waiting in a queue for drinking water at the water fountain, 10 year-old Dhruv gets elbowed by his classmate Suket. Suket cuts in the queue and stands right in the front, ready to take his turn next. Fuming at him for disregarding the queue so blatantly, Dhruv yells out, “Hey you!” Dhruv is a rule abiding person and expects others to do the same. He is going to teach Suket a lesson! How dare he cut in the queue like this? Dhruv goes up to Suket and lands a punch on his face.

Situation 3: Mansi, a conscientious 10th grader, receives poor grade on an exam for which she had worked hard. She feels confused and upset. However, instead of complaining to her friends, she decides to take this up with her teacher after class. She goes up to the teacher and says, “Ma’am, I’m confused because I had worked really hard for this subject and my marks don’t reflect that. Could you please explain what I should have done differently, or give me a chance to make corrections?”

Which response strikes you as assertive? Which one would you peg as being aggressive? And which one as passive?
While Zoya’s mother feels good when everyone around raves about how sweet and obedient her daughter is, she secretly worries that Zoya defers too much to other children, avoids confrontation, and doesn’t know how to stand up for herself.
On the other hand, Dhruv’s tendency to pick on others and get into trouble (if only to teach trouble-makers a lesson!) makes him a regular face inside the principal’s office.
Of the three children, Mansi is the one who displays assertive behaviour. Assertiveness, much like passivity or aggression, is a style of communication. Our children’s style of communication decides who their friends are, what their relationships are like, and even how they approach certain problems. Our whole world is shaped by our communication style.

Read this article on teaching your pre-schooler to be assertive

Why assertiveness can be life-changing

One of the healthiest styles of communication, assertiveness involves recognising and standing up for one’s rights, and being able to express oneself with honesty, firmness, and calmness. Being assertive means being able to stand up for oneself but in a way that’s respectful of the rights of the other person. The assertive child is in touch with her feelings. She doesn’t fear disapproval, or rejection, or abandonment. She is able to make suggestions or requests of others in a group.

Assertiveness is crucial to not only speak up for oneself but also resolve conflicts. A child who is able to respond assertively is one who has skills for negotiation and conflict resolution. He is able to express his needs with confidence, whether it is in everyday situations such as seeking help at a store or the library or in crisis situations such as standing up to a bully. Thus, assertiveness is a necessary element in establishing safety and trust in relationships.

Children who are taught assertiveness are able to empathise with the other person’s situation and yet keep their own goals in mind. They are able to set limits gently, deliver ‘no’ gracefully, and draw boundaries clearly. Research has consistently demonstrated that children who display assertiveness have healthier relationships and higher self-esteem.

ParentCircle interacted with Lisa Schab, a clinical social worker and author of seventeen self-help books and workbooks for children, teens, and adults, including The Anxiety Workbook for Teens and The Self-Esteem Workbook for Teens. She speaks about how “assertiveness skills can turn a child’s life around. When a child learns assertiveness early in life, they are more likely to take those skills with them into adulthood.”

“An assertive child is likely to be a happier child. They feel good about themselves because they are confident that they can get their needs met and achieve their goals. They also know that they are treating others kindly and with respect… [and make it more likely that they are in turn] treated kindly and with respect”, Schab opines. She further adds, “Children who act assertively are less likely to experience anxiety and depression and less likely to be influenced by peer pressure.”

On the other hand, there are definite pitfalls to being non-assertive. When children are raised to believe that absolute obedience to adults is a virtue, it can put them in a dangerous situation. This, combined with an unclear understanding of physical boundaries, is a recipe for disaster. Thus, one’s interpersonal relationships and in response, one’s views of oneself and of the world are shaped by how one responds to and communicates with others.

How being assertive can be life-changing for your child

Teach your child to be assertive

Assertiveness, like any other life-skill, can be taught and practiced. Here are some ways in which you can teach your child to respond more assertively:

1. Talk about Boundaries: Teaching your child about physical and emotional boundaries involves explaining to them how important boundaries are to one’s safety and privacy. Explain to your child that she has a right to body autonomy and should speak up if these rights have been violated. Even within the parent-child relationship, it is important that you teach your child that she is within her right to expect respect of her personal boundaries from you.

Make it work with your child:

  • Accept your child’s “no” if she doesn’t want you to kiss to hug her. Respect her physical space. Don’t make her feel guilty by saying “It makes mommy sad when you don’t give her a hug”
  • If your child is uncomfortable with being called names, teach him to speak up. If the name-calling persists, discuss how your child has the right to stop being friends with that person
  • Be sure your child knows that she has the freedom to make choices. If you constantly make choices for her, she will be more likely to allow her friends to make choices for her

Make it work with your teen:

  • Encourage differences of opinion with your child. Teach your child that two people who love each other can agree to disagree, while being respectful of each other. Explain to your teen how she should never have to offer an explanation or apology to good friends. Her real friends will never make her feel bad about her choices, or exclude her just because she doesn’t agree on certain things
  • Don’t invade your teen’s privacy by reading her journal or text messages or eavesdropping on her conversations
  • Encourage your teen to debate your rules, the ones he may not agree with. This helps him practice speaking his own mind, and helps him learn to think about how he arrived at his opinion. Questioning your authority helps him learn to stand up for himself in a safe place (at home); it teaches him the skills to stand up for himself outside the home; and it teaches him to say no to things he doesn’t like

2. Talk about Feelings: Encourage your child to express his feelings, even if they are negative (especially if they are negative). When we teach our children assertiveness, we need to give them tools to communicate their anger, hurt, disappointment, or frustration respectfully. Respond by acknowledging the feeling rather than getting defensive (or preachy) in turn.

Make it work:

  • Instead of yelling at his brother in anger when his privacy has been violated, teach your older child to describe his feelings in words by saying, “I feel extremely angry when you read my emails. Please keep off my inbox in the future.”
  • Teach your child appropriate ways to express her anger. If she throws a tantrum, don’t scold or punish her. Instead, acknowledge and empathise with her feelings (not her behaviour if she is hurting others or throwing things). Says Dr Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, “[Provide] a safe space (your arms) to cry and rage where he won’t be shushed.”
  • Don’t display your own irritation or frustration in response to your child’s requests (“Mom, I told you I wanted omelette, not French toast). Don’t ignore his requests either
How being assertive can be life-changing for your child

3. Teach Communication skills: Ask your child to think of people or situations where he might need to speak up, then role play those situations at home by choosing roles. Switch roles after each scenario and give meaningful feedback to each other. In these role plays, teach your child to use the following styles of communication:

i) Teach her to use ‘I’ or ‘it’ statements— Instead of using ‘you’, which puts the other on the defensive, teach your child to use ‘I’ or ‘it’ statements, which are difficult for the listener to dispute.

ii) Teach asking questions in a friendly way— Instead of questions that could be perceived as attack (“How come you never ask me if I want to decide what to play?”), teach your child to ask friendly questions (“The next time, can I get to take a vote on what to play?”)

Make it work with your child:

  • Give your child plenty of opportunities to speak up, including ordering independently at a restaurant or asking for directions
  • When your child does attempt the above styles of communication, irrespective of whether it has worked or not, positively comment on his taking a chance and making effort
  • Schab recommends role-playing some situations with your child to give her a chance to practice what she would say. “For example, if your child wants to join in a playground game with a group of children but doesn’t feel confident asking, you can help them come up with words she could use such as: “Hi, that looks like fun - can I play, too?” Or, “Would it be okay if I play when the next game starts?” You can also suggest that she approaches the person who appears the friendliest, or the person that she knows best.”
  • “While watching TV or movies, or reading a story with your children, talk about which characters are acting assertively, which are acting passively, and which are acting aggressively. Talk together about how this affects the other people, how it affects the character themselves, and how it affects the outcome of the story. This helps them recognise the different styles of communication and understand what the outcomes are of using them” advises Schab

Make it work with your teen:

  • If your teen is not comfortable with his friend copying his homework or showing his friend answers in an exam, he could make a clear statement about his preference. He could practise saying: “I’m just not comfortable with that”, “I prefer not to show my answers for you to copy”, “It doesn’t work for me to lend out my notebook”
  • Practise with your teen different ways of saying ‘no’ in various situations. Your teen will benefit from experimenting with face-saving ways to say no if she is feeling the pressure to do something she doesn’t want to. For example, friends might be encouraging your teen to try smoking. Rather than simply saying “No, thanks”, she could say something like, “No, it makes my asthma worse”. Or if your child is being pressured to bunk classes, she could try saying “No, if I continue to bunk, I’m going to fail my exams.”
  • Schab recommends having family conversations about how best to handle situations that come up in family life. “How could Michael have been more assertive when his cousins ate all of his favourite candy without asking him? How could Mom have spoken assertively with her boss when he didn’t give her the raise she thought she deserved? How could Dad have been more assertive when the mechanic overcharged him to fix the car? Encourage your children to come up with their own ideas and talk realistically about which would work best, and what outcomes they would bring,” advises Schab.

4. Model assertive behaviour: As a parent, you can model assertiveness when interacting with family members, friends, making work calls, with sales people, and in other everyday situations. Make eye contact and speak in a confident and respectful tone. Point out these moments to your child and discuss what it felt like to assert your needs.

Make it work:

  • Utilise all teachable moments. Don’t jump in and speak on behalf of your child- let him fight his own battles. Talk about it, work on it, and be there for him. However, if your child begs and begs for you to speak to his teacher, help him, but bring him along, so that he can observe the interaction. Process it with him afterward
  • Teach your child to accept other people’s right to refuse his request. Help him expect failure from time to time

To sum, assertiveness is a difficult skill, one that requires practice and patience to inculcate. It is not rejection or failure distinguishes an assertive from a passive or aggressive person but how the child deals with the failure. Either cowering or commandeering doesn’t help when one’s overtures don’t work. Collecting your wits and getting right back into the game makes all the difference

Narrates Shikha Khullar, a Delhi-based marketing professional and parent to a 7-year old, “My washing machine started giving me trouble within one year of purchase. When I contacted the customer care, I had to haggle a little to get a replacement product. However, I kept my tone direct but polite and spoke confidently. I wasn’t aware that my daughter was observing me throughout the process of making calls, dealing with the technician visits, and going to the store to get my replacement machine. A few weeks later I was surprised to hear her say to a friend- “I would appreciate it if you…”- just the words I had used repeatedly to have my complaint heard!”

In a Nutshell

  • One of the healthiest styles of communication, assertiveness is the golden mean between passivity and aggression
  • Assertiveness involves recognising and standing up for one’s rights, and being able to express oneself with honesty, firmness, and calmness. Children who display assertiveness have healthier relationships and higher self-esteem
  • Help your child learn to be assertive by talking to her about boundaries, feelings, and communication skills, and modelling assertive behaviour

What you can do right away

  • Respect your child’s right to privacy. Don’t read her journal or text messages
  • Accept and acknowledge your child’s feelings, including negative ones
  • Encourage teamwork activities such as sports or club memberships

About the author:
Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 23 October 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.

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