Teaching your child how to be assertive

Anybody who has a child has lived through this scenario before. Your child reaches for a toy at the same time as another child. For a second they lock eyes and then you will mostly likely to be treated to one of three possible scenarios.

  1. Your child rips the toy from the other child’s grasp whilst screaming “No – I want it!” so loudly in the other child’s face that you swear that the other child is thrown backwards half a meter. The other child goes whimpering into his mother’s arms and you are forever shunned from setting foot near that family ever again. This scenario is the combination of an aggressive conflict style coming up against a passive style.
  2. Your child rips the toy from the other child’s grasp whilst screaming “No – I want it!” but the words have barely left your child’s lips before the other child has grabbed them by the pigtails and thrown them against the wall. You jump to your child’s defense and before you know it you and the other child’s parent are engaged in a verbal discourse that would make a prison dining hall seem like a Jane Austen novel. This is a combination of two aggressive styles.
  3. Your child looks meekly at the other child, they offer a confused smile to each other then break down in tears (no one is sure who started crying first) and scamper off to their respective parents to spend the remainder of the day calming down. This is the combination of two passive styles.

We can spend a lot of time telling our children to not be aggressive and to not be passive. We can punish aggressive behavior and try and dissuade passive behavior for hours on end. However, telling a child what not to do does not provide them with a solution.

We need to teach our children how to be assertive.

For those of us who sat through PDHPE at school you will remember that assertiveness is the happy medium. Assertiveness: the approach that allows you to communicate clearly what you want without being aggressive towards others or belittling and ignoring their needs.

So how do we teach our children to be assertive? Like most useful character traits it should be taught early. This in mind, there are a number of practical tools that can help.

Firstly, teach explicitly about what assertiveness is. Use the word “assertive” and tell them exactly what this should look like in certain situations. Secondly, reward it when you see it and teach and discipline it when you don’t.

Teach your child to think cooperatively. Lead them towards solutions that help both parties to “win”. Work with them to find a solution rather than rescuing from every situation in one way or another. Do not foster the frightened rabbit mentality that other people are mean and that they are only there to spoil your fun. This only fosters aggressive or passive responses.

Encourage your child in their ability to be assertive by giving them practice. When at the shops or meeting people, if your child has a question, encourage your child to ask this question of the adult directly. Praise them for asking such a good question and try to correct any condescending comments that the adult might provide in their answer.

Lastly, do not speak to your child as if they are a baby that does not understand the world and is incapable of doing anything remotely resembling responsibility or autonomy. Give them an answer in a friendly but clear way that uses proper words and not “baby talk” or ridiculous answers. Such answers only discourage children from asking any further questions in future.

If all else fails have your child write me a letter outlining why assertive is not the best way to solve conflict and they will already be halfway there!