How do we cultivate assertiveness in our children?
We are all confronted with situations in which we must stand up for ourselves and children are no exception. The situation may involve a “friend” who takes a toy and doesn’t return it. It may be a sister who makes choices for us before we have a chance to speak. It may even involve telling a grownup that they aren’t comfortable with kisses on the cheek or sitting too closely on the sofa.
When facing such situations, there are generally three ways we may choose to act:
The way we act in the moment during times like these often plays a large role in the final outcome and habits formed in youth can continue into adulthood.
Passiveness is a nonassertive way of dealing with situations in which we need to speak up for our rights. This type of behavior often results in our allowing others to determine what happens in our lives, producing feelings of helplessness, loneliness, and poor self-concept. Children also can become angry or depressed over the perceived injustices. Non-assertive communication is usually indirect and not completely honest, which traps the thoughts and feelings we have inside us. These unexpressed emotions can lead to unacceptable behaviors.
Since non-assertiveness is often used when we want a relationship to continue but are unsure about the consequences of standing up for ourselves, it is ironic that non-assertiveness generally leads to interpersonal problems. While one conflict may be avoided, future interactions will be tainted by the lack of direct expression of thoughts and feelings. The other person will inevitably notice something wrong, perhaps we withdraw, say something sarcastic, or have inappropriate reactions to what has occurred, but the other child/person will not know the real reason for our feelings, and, thus, will be unable to do anything about it.
A second method of dealing with such situations is aggression. While aggression certainly expresses our displeasure with a situation, and we may even get our way, it does not show sufficient respect for the rights of others. They may feel devalued or humiliated by the experience and will likely lose respect for, and positive opinions of, us. Such outbursts often lead to feelings of guilt and frustration. Despite controlling the situation, we may have significantly harmed the relationship and may still not have made the other person understand our perspective.
Assertiveness may be defined as expressing our own needs, wants, and basic rights as a person without violating the rights of others. It involves open and honest interaction directed at the person to whom it is intended. Assertive behavior shows that we respect others and ourselves, and, in turn, elicits respect from others. It also promotes self-confidence, self-control, and feelings of positive self-worth.
In addition, assertiveness is the most effective means for solving interpersonal problems. Since assertive communication is direct, we confront the source of the problems, enabling our message to be heard without distortion. Being open and honest aids in maintaining a good and respectful relationship with the other person, so future dealings will likely be positive.
Assertiveness is not a skill with which people are born. To become more assertive, you must first recognize that you have the right to take care of yourself and to sometimes put your needs ahead of others. Children learn this from their parents and other grownups they interact with each day. We can learn and practice assertive thinking and behavior. When practicing to be more assertive, it is helpful to get feedback from others we trust. It is easy to undermine what we say with words by our facial expressions and gestures. We may also go to the opposite extreme of behavior (e.g., non-assertive to aggressive) in our attempts. For these reasons, assertiveness training is something we should be aware of for our children. Both individually and in groups, the skills of assertiveness can be acquired in a safe and supportive atmosphere.