Ask Jane: How can I help my child be more assertive?

By Jane Greminger

Q: My child always backs down. If another child wants her toy, she always gives up the toy. How can I help her be more assertive?

A: Most children are born with tendencies to use either passive or aggressive behaviors. In either case, teaching them assertiveness is important so they can learn to respect the needs of themselves and others equally—rather than pushing their wants and needs on
others (aggression), or acting as though others’ needs are more important than their own (passiveness).

Children who always back down need to learn the proper tools to help them become strong and confident, be able to express and value themselves, and help them believe that they have rights. It’s great that you are teaching your child assertiveness skills when she is young so she can become confident and have a secure sense of herself by the time she is an adult.

Teach your daughter to use the following strategies to help her become more assertive in her interactions with others:

  • Make clear requests. Encourage your daughter to make her wants and needs clear to others. (For example: “That’s my toy. Please give it back now.”) Depending on her age, your daughter may not understand she has rights, just as adults have rights. As parents and teachers, it is our job to teach children how to be assertive, and to express themselves in a polite manner as well. Young children often respond with anger when they are frustrated (such as throwing tantrums, throwing toys, screaming, etc.) Explain how acting out in anger does not make their needs clear, but instead can lead others to be defensive.
  • It’s okay to say “No.” Make sure your daughter knows it is okay for her to say “No.” You don’t want her to feel like she must submit to every request of her peers. Also let her know that if she doesn’t like the way she is being treated, it’s okay for her to speak up and say so. Stress to your daughter that nobody has the right to be mean to her or make her feel guilty or ridiculous in any way.
  • Be compassionate and kind, but not at the expense of your own needs. Express the importance of being empathetic, thoughtful, and kind to others, but explain that it is not okay to have someone else take advantage of that thoughtfulness. Encourage your daughter to stand up for herself.
  • Practice. Practice at home (where the environment is safe and supportive) by role-playing different scenarios. Make up circumstances or use situations she has experienced—then have her practice responding in more assertive ways. Promote independent thinking by discussing various responses to handling these situations.
  • This type of role-playing will help your daughter build her confidence so she is prepared to assertively express herself in real life situations. The more your daughter applies these practices to real situations, the more strong and confident she will become.

Jane Greminger is director of Nokomis Child Care Centers. Nokomis is a program of The Village Family Service Center. You can like Nokomis and The Village on Facebook!

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