One very crucial life skill a child needs to know is how to be unapologetically assertive. Every social situation requires two things communication and self-protection. From early on a child should be taught early how to assertively express their feelings, thoughts, opinions, beliefs while remaining respectful of others. To be treated with dignity and respect is a basic human being. You matter just as much as the other person.
According to assertiveness experts Arthur Lange and Patricia Jakubowski:
Assertiveness involves personal rights and expressing thoughts, feelings and beliefs directly, honestly and appropriately, without violating the rights of others.
Though all of us are born with that innate self-preservation skill of protecting our self-interests we must learn how to do so without being aggressive or resorting to violence.
The recent spat at the Oscars where Will Smith slapped Chris Rock was an example of pure aggression. How much better it would have been if Will Smith had gone up and publicly shared about his wife’s medical condition alopecia and requested the host not to joke about it. That would have been pure class and a real lesson on how to handle difficult situations. So much for icons, they do have feet of clay.
At the heart of assertiveness are self-confidence (which includes empowering body language) and effective communication. Standing tall, looking a person in the eye while directly, openly, and clearly stating how we feel/ what we think. This leads to better emotional well-being and satisfying relationship outcomes.
Lack of Assertiveness – Target For Bullies
Unfortunately, most parents due to their own faulty belief systems perceive their kids’ refusal to do something as disobedience. Instead of listening, discussing, and negotiating with their kids, they will overtly or covertly try to brow-beat them into submission. This has serious long-term consequences on their self-esteem and confidence.
You may feel proud of having an obedient child however the repercussions of such compliance are insidious. Beneath that conformity is a dark monster of seething rage that comes out in very different ways.
Either, the child will become an overtly aggressive violator or a passive-aggressive deceitful liar. Sometimes this repressed anger is turned inwards. Being in a docile doormat nearly always leads to resentment and subsequently depression. What’s worse, subservience makes one an easy target for bullies.
Research shows that those singled out for bullying lack assertiveness even in non-threatening situations. Bullies usually pick victims who are easy targets – the ones who lack confidence and who don’t stand up for themselves.
Assertiveness Comes With Practise
Assertiveness is not a superman cape you put on when faced with a challenging situation. Like confidence, it has to be part of your psyche. It is a reflexive expression of how we react to the world.
Don’t make being a good girl/boy the be-all and end-all of your parenting lessons. True, politeness is a good virtue but standing up to inequity is equally important.
Dr. Gabor Maté expressly states that our inability to stand up for ourselves and assertively express our truth negatively impacts our health – both physical and mental. There is only so much you can lie to yourself. Eventually, the body says no, it can no longer keep up the deceit.
Sure, teach kids to be nice and be polite, but also teach them how to say ‘no‘, stop, or simply walk away. Most of us have been so indoctrinated into keeping quiet, not upsetting the apple cart which only encourages further abuse. To no longer be the victim one has to learn to be assertive. And it can be learned no matter what one’s age. But the earlier one learns to be assertive the better one’s life outcomes will be.
I wish someone had told me that assertiveness is not a bad thing.
How Do We Teach a Child To Be Assertive?
Learning to be assertive takes time and practice and the best time to inculcate this skill is in childhood. It goes without saying, assertive children grow up to be assertive teens who will not be easily swayed by peer pressure.
1) Modelling Assertiveness
We have all experienced the utter embarrassment of our kids throwing a very public hissy fit when we did not give in to their demands. How we handle that challenging episode can be a very important lesson. Do we react we anger, rage, and violence, or do we calmly and assertively stay firm on our refusal?
This will be the pivotal moment when a child learns the difference between aggression and assertiveness. The first involves brute force, violence while the latter involves restraint and mutual respect.
2) Teaching Emotional Regulation
Unless a child learns to be aware of his feelings/emotions and knows how to down-regulate his feelings of rejection, disappointment, or rage he cannot be assertive? You cannot assertively state something when one is in a state of dysregulation. It will come out as explosive rage or simply shutting down.
Emotional regulation builds through co-regulation with our caregivers. Instead, of reacting to your child’s tantrums. Calmly ask them what is bothering them. Just the fact that your parent is listening to you and truly seeing you can immediately bring on the ventral vagus branch (the social engagement system) of the nervous system online.
I still remember once accusing my mother of favoring my brother. Instead of shutting me down she quietly explained the reason for her action in that particular instance and her reason seemed valid. The lesson I learned was I could speak up, however, this, unfortunately, got messed up after she died.
3) Freedom To Be Who They Are
Allow your child the respectful space to be his/her own unique self with their own likes, dislikes, opinions, predilections. Every human being is different and each child has their own temperamental predilections. Don’t autocratically insist on something as the only truth, just because you think it is so.
Honor your child’s viewpoint while skillfully putting across the facts.
If they say, ‘I don’t like broccoli,’ don’t insist that they have to eat it. Just share the benefits of eating vegetables and leave it at that. Forcing your opinion onto your child will only lead to resentment and a lifetime of hatred for that thing.
Also, avoid gaslighting your child, wherein you try to manipulate a child’s reality/invalidate his experiences and feelings. Trying to control what their child should like, dislike, value, and believe can be damaging. You may think it unimportant but there can be terrible ramifications – a human being devoid of the ability to think for himself/herself.
4) Discuss-Negotiate – Teach Them How To Ask
Once out of the above tantrum-throwing situation one can calmly discuss why does a child need something. Discussing, the whats and whys of a situation can bring clarity. Do they actually need it or is it just on the spot whim? Do they need it now or what can be the time -frame? Does it require some reciprocal action on their part? What are your expectations of giving something?
I remember my childhood playtime with my brother and cousins was one of constant negotiation – coming to a compromise on what we each wanted to do. I’d tell my brother I would help him clean his birdcage in exchange he’d play my favorite game of house-house.
One important point for parents to keep in mind when kids are arguing, don’t interfere. Only if there is a possibility of violence should one intervene. Children have this unique knack for resolving their own issues.
5) Respect Their Choices
Children are temperamentally programmed towards certain activities or behaviors. Trying to force a naturally introverted child to engage in boisterous play irritates/angers them.
Give your child the freedom to say ‘no’ to negotiable issues (not wanting to hug someone, wear certain clothing or play a particular sport).
This is where my mother messed up. Once when we were on an outing my mother noticed I had worn my panties back-front. My mother was quite insistent and partially gaslighted me into saying no one was watching. Even though I was uncomfortable changing in public. I reluctantly acceded to my mother’s wishes. After all a 5-year-old can have only so much resistance to the exhortations of an adult. Not long after, when a much older pedophile cousin insisted on taking off my panties I was unable to assertively fight back.
Remember, you may win at the moment but the aftermath of your actions could severely affect your child’s in-built self-protectiveness.
Even, the non-negotiables like doing their homework, cleaning their room can be thrashed-out as to when they would like to do it.
5) Give Your Child The Vocabulary
Practice with a child from a young age how to politely ask for something, stand up for themselves and defend their boundaries. What do they say and how should they say it has to be honed in regularly.
Teach them this simple four-step formula in order to express their feelings and inform others about their needs:
I feel …. when …. because ….(my needs are) …..
I feel annoyed when you touch my things without asking because it shows me you don’t respect my feelings.
Also, through modeling, you can teach your child to use “I” statements to express themselves:
I feel…upset when you don’t do your homework
I need…you to clear up your room
I want…to have some alone time
I dislike…when you don’t put your toys away
Additionally, teach them how to deal with difficult situations/people:
- Stop that immediately,
- No, I don’t want to do it
- Will you stop bothering me
- Don’t touch me
They should never feel obligated to be nice to anyone who disrespects them, intrudes on their space, violates boundaries, and in general behaves like an asshole. Gavin de Becker author of The Gift of Fear ruefully states, often we let politeness get in the way of self-preservation.
6) Walking Away From Shitty Behavior
Standing up for oneself can mean simply walking away.
Often we teach a child the stupid Christian concept of turning the other cheek or being the bigger person. This kind of response to shitty behavior only fuels further abuse.
Sometimes the most assertive thing one can do is just to walk away from shitty behavior. Some people/ situations are just not worth your time and effort.
7) Build Self-esteem and Self-confidence
A child’s self-esteem stems from how they perceive their parents to see them. Their looking-glass self is what their caregivers mirror to them through words and actions. Parents who treat their children with love and respect reflect that they are valuable, good enough which fosters high self-esteem. At the core, a child knows that he does have to compromise his authenticity and integrity to be loved.
Self-confidence develops through self-efficacy, the knowing that one can tackle situations/life. Both are interrelated. Without positive self-esteem, a child will not feel confident to stand up for himself.
Assertiveness – Practise Makes Us Perfect
Assertiveness and success go hand-in-hand. Being able to convey your ideas, request for something, negotiate effectively, decline an offer and maintain your boundaries without rubbing people the wrong way requires intuitive assertiveness. It takes skill to traverse the social minefield of being liked and accepted without being used and abused.
Competent leaders through assertive communication skills know how to influence, resolve conflicts and successfully wheel and deal without other people feeling short-changed.
Assertiveness takes practice for all of us. Be ever mindful of how you treat your child and how you respond to their differing opinions.
Life is a series of negotiations and compromises, teach your child how to do so with grace and gumption.