Assertiveness is a tricky concept for many children—and their parents. This is because it can be tenuous to balance teaching assertiveness to children without that assertiveness being perceived as aggressiveness, especially to other children, and unintentionally creating more battles in keeping peace and discipline in your household.
However, assertiveness is an exceptionally important skill. Those adults who now struggle with creating or holding boundaries know first-hand how frustrating it can be to go without this skill in everyday life.
With children, our goal is to support assertiveness in a way that allows our children and students to safely express their needs, and to do so in an effective, positive way.
Strategies for Teaching Assertiveness
In this article, we will explore strategies for teaching children to be assertive and empower them to express themselves (without making parenting more difficult).
1. Set Clear Family Boundaries
One of the biggest hesitancies parents have when teaching assertiveness to their children is how to respect and support the boundaries their children choose to set without giving them “kid president” power over decisions like sweets, bedtime, screen time, and more.
What happens if your child becomes assertive about wanting unlimited screen time or not going to bed at bedtime? Once your child realizes their power to set boundaries, they may explore the breadth of these boundaries. The best way to avoid frustration and power struggles (on both sides) is to have clear family rules and logical consequences for these rules. For instance, the rule may be no screens after dinner. Choosing not to follow this rule may include one reminder before the screen is put away for 24 hours.
Try saying, “I like that you used your words to tell me you want to keep playing. It helps me know how you’re feeling. I know it can be frustrating to put a game away when you’re having fun. It’s okay to feel upset that you have to turn it off. I feel the same way sometimes, too. Our family doesn’t use screens after dinner, which means it’s time to put your tablet away now. Would you like help saving your game so you can play again tomorrow?”
2. Model Assertive Behavior
One of a child’s best learning tools is by watching how their parents and other caregivers act. This can be one of the best ways to teach assertiveness to children. Demonstrating respectful communication, setting clear boundaries, and expressing feelings openly will show children how to assert themselves positively.
For instance, you may choose to have a boundary about sharing your food or having children on your lap while you eat. You may communicate, “I love cuddling with you, but I don’t like having people sitting on my lap while I eat dinner. I can’t hold you right now, but I’m excited to snuggle after I finish eating.”
3. Teach the Difference Between Assertiveness and Aggressiveness
It’s important for children to understand the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness. While assertiveness promotes healthy communication, aggressiveness can hurt others. Explain these concepts to children using age-appropriate language. For example, your child may assert that they don’t want to play a certain game with a friend or sibling, and that’s okay. However, yelling, pushing, or hitting to get their point across isn’t the best way to communicate that desire.
4. Encourage Open Communication
Create an environment where children feel safe to express their thoughts and feelings. Encourage them to share their concerns, worries, and opinions. Listen actively, validate their emotions, and show empathy. Respect your child’s boundaries whenever possible. This means if they say “no” in a tickle game, you stop immediately (even if they might not really have meant “no”).
Try and validate your child when they express an opinion, even if you don’t agree with it. For instance, if your child typically loves soup but says they don’t like it and pushes it away, instead of saying, “Yes you do—you love this soup!” try saying, “It’s okay if you don’t like this soup. I’ll leave your bowl here if you change your mind.” This helps your child understand that their words have meaning and power. When your children feel heard and respected, they’re more likely to express healthy assertiveness in the future.
If your child has difficulty putting assertiveness in action, try role playing. Help your child define some of their boundaries, then role play communicating these boundaries in different situations.
6. Teach Assertive Communication Skills
Teach children specific assertive communication skills, such as using “I” statements, maintaining eye contact, using a confident tone of voice, and staying calm. Help them practice these skills in real-life situations, like resolving conflicts with friends or classmates.
7. Teach Empathy
It’s important for your child to understand that everyone has boundaries and it’s important to respect these boundaries. Sometimes, people may not communicate boundaries in ways we’re used to. For instance, other children may not use words, but may use crying or body language to show they don’t like something. Explore the concept of empathy with your child to understand these boundaries. For instance, as your child, “How do you think Mark felt when Lily took the toy away from him? He was crying; what do you think his crying meant?”
8. Problem-Solving Skills
Teach children problem-solving skills to handle difficult situations assertively. Encourage them to identify the problem, brainstorm solutions, evaluate the pros and cons, and choose the best course of action. This approach empowers them to address challenges confidently.
9. Encourage Independence
Allow children to make age-appropriate decisions and take responsibility for their choices. When they experience the consequences of their actions, they learn to be more assertive in making decisions and advocating for themselves.
10. Be Patient and Supportive
Learning empathy takes time, and your child will have some trial and error as they learn to determine which words are best used during assertive situations and how to communicate their boundaries consistently and clearly. Be supportive and patient while they learn and know you’re teaching them an important skill they’ll used for the rest of their lives.
Teaching children to be assertive is a valuable gift that equips them with essential life skills for healthy communication and relationships for the future. By modeling assertive behavior, teaching communication skills, setting boundaries, and fostering self-esteem, parents, caregivers, and educators can empower children to express themselves confidently while navigating the complexities of life with grace and respect for others.
Remember, the journey toward assertiveness is a lifelong process, and the support and guidance provided in childhood can shape a child’s ability to assert themselves throughout their life.