Being assertive sometimes gets a bad rap. But being assertive simply means having confidence: the ability to stand up for yourself and defend your opinions. Teaching children to be assertive is teaching them about boundaries and standards and how to stick to them, while still being respectful of others. “Assertive” becomes a problem when it crosses the line into “aggressive”—when the “respectful of others” part gets forgotten. As parents, it’s our job to define that line, and to do what we can to foster healthy confidence in our children instead of brutish or bullying behavior.
So what’s a great way to teach our kids how to be assertive when interacting and communicating with others? By modeling that type of behavior ourselves! Communicating is something that we usually do without thinking about how we are doing it; it just kind of happens, whether verbally or through our body language. But remember that children learn from observation, so be aware of your communication style as you interact with your peers and with your children. What kind of “communication example” are you setting?
To help answer that, let’s explore the spectrum of communication.
Passive Communication. This is communication that focuses on others’ needs, to the exclusion of mine. Rather than expressing my desires or my point of view, I only think about the wants or needs of others. An example of this style can be seen in children who typically aren’t the ones to choose what games to play or to lead in activities.
Aggressive Communication. The exact opposite of passive communication, this style focuses on my needs to the exclusion of another’s. We all know aggressive communicators; in children, we often think of them as the schoolyard bully. Aggressive communication isn’t just loud or physical; it can be subtle, especially in older children and adults.
Assertive Communication. When we communicate assertively, we’re promoting our own needs and desires while leaving room to accommodate the needs and desires of others. We see this style being used by children and adults who are able to offer their ideas and suggestions while also asking others for their input about the issue or situation.
When we model and encourage assertive communication, we’re teaching our children an essential life skill that they’ll need as adults. We’re also laying the groundwork for raising empathic children who have genuine concern and respect for others.
Keep in mind, no one uses just one style of communication all the time. You might observe your child firmly rooted in one style when communicating with one group while employing another style in a different situation. This is appropriate; communicating with a teacher isn’t the same as communicating with a sibling. The goal is balance, to not fall too far to one extreme or another. It can be painful to witness your child engaging in communication which is either too passive or too aggressive. So, another way to foster positive communication in your child is to make use of teachable moments (those times when you notice him veering too far to either end of the communication spectrum).
With a child who is more of a passive communicator, don’t force him to do anything he isn’t comfortable with (for example, pressuring a shy child to talk to new people). Instead, role-play at home in a comfortable space so he can learn how to interact appropriately and get used to advocating for himself.
With a child who is showing aggression, above all, stay calm. If you get into her face and yell, you’re modeling the very behavior you’re trying to change. Instead, diffuse the situation quickly and concisely. Be fair, firm and consistent with consequences. On an ongoing basis, reward positive behavior and model what a good friend or family member acts and talks like. Keep the discussion open; teach her that it’s okay to feel anger and frustration, but that she’s responsible for managing those emotions safely and appropriately.
We tend to become entrenched in one style of communication or another at a very young age. Helping your children establish positive, assertive patterns of communication means that they will learn this habit, use it, and benefit from it, for the rest of their lives.