Teaching Your Child Assertiveness Skills
Jay M. Greenfeld, Ph.D., C.Psych.,
As we continue to move ahead with the ongoing pandemic, some lifted restrictions, other limitations still in place, yet thankfully, the schools continue to progress. The arrangements of cohorts within the schools have been an interesting for many parents, yet what seldom gets mentioned is what the students think, feels, need, and want. Many students (as young as early elementary school) have slowly been trying to find ways to voice their opinions as to how their classrooms operate, but often struggle with finding ways to share their thoughts. Many classrooms are made up of very small cohorts, but to keep our students safe and socially distant, many classrooms are operating in gyms, libraries, and other significantly bigger spaces compared to the standard sized classroom. As a result of these setups, students may be separated into very small cohorts, but they are in a room with forty, fifty, and sometimes sixty or more children. As a result of these setups, the students have been limited from raising their hands to ask questions, not always having their thoughts and opinions heard as clearly as they want them to be, or students developing a sense of learned helplessness when needing to advocate for themselves because there are simply too many people in the room.
Regardless of the size of the classroom, many students, irrespective of their age, tend to struggle with asserting themselves both in school and even more so away from school. In a year where students have been directed by the province as to what rules they need to follow, what restrictions were going to be in place, it has left little room for them to speak for themselves and has helped create a situation where the default for these students is to remain silent on what they think, feel, need, and want. Whether in a pandemic or not, children and adolescents need to learn how to speak up for themselves because as helpful as we can be as parents, we are not with our children all the time (hopefully). We want to foster their independence and with that comes independently asserting themselves when they need help, when they have opinions, and when they feel they are not being treated the way they deserve to be treated (i.e., with respect) by their peers.
Start by helping your child know the difference between assertive communication versus aggressive communication. Asserting themselves includes advocating for their rights and expressing their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in an honest and appropriate way without violating another's rights and preferences (i.e., respect). They are respecting the opinions of others, but ensuring that they are expressing what they need and want. Taking on a passive approach can lead your child to believe that what they need or want is not important leading to a lack of respect for themselves. Taking an aggressive approach is often synonymous with sharing your needs while degrading and devaluing the other person for thinking any differently. Your child needs to know that what they feel is important and that if they feel too anxious to advocate for themselves, ensure that you practice changing this pattern at home. Start with small preferences (e.g., games they want to play, food options they prefer, movies they would prefer to watch, a separate time with a parent at the end of the day to reflect on their experiences). Noting that what one child in your home needs and wants will likely be different from another. Most importantly, it is imperative that your children are not embracing a sense of entitlement while using assertive skills. They are establishing their preferences and openly, directly, and respectfully communicating them.
It is important then when your children are practicing assertive skills, that they acknowledge the other person but remain polite in their response. For example: "I appreciate that you want to watch this movie and I feel that we often choose the movies that you want and would prefer that I have a choice today."; "I told you that it was ok to borrow my iPad and I would prefer that you not use it outside." When sharing a workspace while doing homework: "When your half of the desk is disorganized, I find it hard to think and concentrate on my work because I'm worried that my homework may be mixed with yours. This is really bothering me. Do you think we could work something out to help me?" These examples indicate that your child can learn ways in which they feel comfortable communicating their feelings and preferences without offending others and more so decrease their own patterns of internalizing their feelings. By empowering our children to stand up for themselves, they are letting themselves be known to others, gain self-respect, and the respect from others around them. As children or even as adults, when we act in demeaning ways, we also demean ourselves and no one wins! When we stand up for ourselves and express our honest feelings and thoughts in a direct and appropriate way, everyone involved usually benefits long-term.
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