My middle child is a shy one. She’s full of beans and very outgoing when she is comfortable, but struggles when she doesn’t know people well. In fact, I’d go so far to say that being asked to be more assertive with people she doesn’t know is the very, very worst thing that can happen to her. Her discomfort is always top of my mind when considering assertiveness.
This one too: What raising kids with anxiety taught me about life
That’s soooo embarrassing
Of course, it’s not just shy kids that could benefit from being more assertive. Many older kids struggle to stand up for themselves in a variety of situations. The whole “so embarrassing” thing is very real for tweens and teens. They simply won’t move if they think the situation will result in anything cringe-worthy. Which is most things when you are an adolescent.
So there are a lot of factors at play when it comes to being more assertive. Confidence and comfort are critical, as is perceived necessity (do I really need this enough to ask for it?) and risk (what are the chances they will say no?). These are big things to learn.
Talking to your kid about what they value and why the need to stand up for those values is key. Being assertive is about being true to what you believe is right and standing up for yourself. Assertiveness allows kids to be considerate of others, but also considerate of their own feelings, wants and needs.
Remind them that everyone feels embarrassed and nervous to put themselves out there. Ask them if being true to themselves is worth the risks of being temporarily in the spotlight.
Talking to your kid about what they value and why the need to stand up for those values is key.
Role-model being more assertive
“Role modelling assertiveness is probably the most important thing that parents can do to teach their children how to be assertive,” says Erin Poulton, principal psychologist at Poulton Psychology. “Teach your child that it’s okay to look out for your own needs, but important to still be considerate of others.
“This way, they will feel confident to have their own opinion, or speak up for themselves, without fear of what others might say or think.”
Respecting our child when they practise being more assertive (say, on their parents) is also very important. Praise them for standing up for themselves, even if you don’t agree with what they have to say. Point out the positives in their attitude and arguments.
Poulon’s advice for practical ways to model assertiveness are:
• Speak in a clear steady voice (not yelling, not too quietly)
• Make eye contact while talking
• Have positive body posture (standing up straight, head up).
“This way of communicating is respectful to the other person, yet allows the child to feel confident in their message,” she says.
Aggression versus assertiveness
Teaching kids the difference between being aggressive (which many of them excel at) and being more assertive is also key. There’s no need to shout, intimidate or lose your temper to express how you feel or get what you need.
The language our kids use can have a big impact here. “We are all guilty of blaming others for our own behaviour, so being aware of our own language is important.” says Poulton.
Staying calm when another person may be yelling or getting aggressive is a tough skill to master, but a critical one.
She uses the example of saying “You are making me so angry”, rather than “I am feeling angry”. Listen out for the way your child expresses themselves and help guide them towards “I” references, rather than “you” or “they” references. While we’re at it, we should probably check our own references too…
Learning to stay calm and be clear will help kids stay in control of their emotions. This is particularly important when they need to stand up against someone they don’t agree with. Staying calm when another person may be yelling or getting aggressive is a tough skill to master, but a critical one.
This might help: 7 tips to stay calm when you feel anything but calm
Five quick wins to help kids be more assertive
1. Acknowledge wins – point out when your child stands up for themselves. It might be something as simple as making a choice between two things to have for lunch. That’s a win.
2. Talk about values – help your kid get to know what really matters to them and what’s worth standing up for. For example, if they don’t like bullying, what can they do to help stamp it out at school? If they don’t want to hug people, what’s a good reaction they can use to let them know that?
3. Help them set boundaries – remind kids that it’s always their choice whether they interact with somebody and they are allowed to establish boundaries that they are comfortable with, even if those boundaries may not be ‘the norm’.
4. Talk about feelings – teach kids to express themselves using ‘I’ phrases. “I don’t like it when you…”, “I feel…” and “I would like to…” It’s okay to be nervous, anxious and worried when being more assertive. Feel those feelings, and go ahead and stand up for yourself anyway.
5. Build social skills – feeling comfortable enough to express our true feelings with others is a learned skill. This is true just as much when talking to parents and friends as it is standing up to a bully or asking for something from a teacher. Remind your child that everyone feels shy and nervous sometimes. Everyone worries what others think of them. Everyone struggles to stand up for themselves. It’s okay to take time to build assertiveness skills.