As the new school year gets underway, children’s social competence skills are put to the test as new friendships are forged and existing ones strengthened or challenged. Social competence allows children to successfully negotiate the demanding landscape of peer relationships. One key component of social competence is assertiveness. This is the area I’ll be focusing on this month.
Assertiveness both promotes positive relationships with other children and it protects children from negative ones, such as bullying and peer pressure. We’ll take a look at what assertiveness really is and how to help children of various ages from preschool through adolescence improve this skill.
Assertiveness represents a child’s ability to initiate behaviors, such as asking others for information or help and responding to others’ actions appropriately, particularly those that involve conflict, and standing up for their own opinion. Self-assertion is a necessary component of children’s healthy development of independence and is distinguished from non-compliance, defiance, or aggression.
Children begin and continue to hone assertiveness within their families. Parents may need to work to become comfortable with their child expressing a point of view that contradicts their own opinion to allow the child to develop assertion skills, keeping in mind being assertive means doing so respectfully and doesn’t represent a threat to parental authority.
As parents, be aware that being assertive might look somewhat different across children and even in different situations for the same child. The way assertiveness looks for some children is more “visible” than for others. The goal is that the child is able to get his or her most important needs met and feel good about how that happens and that others do as well!
Promoting Assertiveness for Different Age Groups
As children mature, the situations in which they are called upon to demonstrate assertiveness change to some degree. Let’s take a look at this…
Allowing children to see that they have the right to make choices is a good starting point, albeit with boundaries, to promoting assertiveness. Choosing what to play with, to wear, and to eat are examples and this process helps children trust and value their personal feelings. Learning with parents how to ask and respond directly can set the stage for children being able to do so with their peers.
Young children are still developing their language skills and during times of frustration can resort to being aggressive with peers, seen with behaviors like pushing or taking a toy. Coaching children on assertiveness instead around what is appropriate to say and do in such situations is very useful so a child has these at their fingertips when they find themselves feeling angry and upset. Additionally, helping children understand that they do not have to acknowledge negative behavior from their peers is an important capability to begin developing.
During this period children become called upon more frequently to set limits with peers on their own, but this can be tricky for them to balance being assertive with their strong and still fragile need to belong to their peer group. Having appropriate assertive social skills typically goes hand-in-hand with feeling confident and happy with whom one is; this is having healthy self-esteem.
The idea of being assertive may be confused by some children at this age as being aggressive so helping them understand the differences may be needed, notably that aggressiveness is more about being threatening and not caring about others’ feelings and rights to get what you want. Children who are appropriately assertive are better able to withstand the criticism and even rejection that might come from standing up for themselves and for others without resorting to aggression.
When children get support and praise for practicing assertiveness, they feel secure and capable. Some of the specific skills parents can help develop are eye contact and speaking in a composed and direct, but nonthreatening manner. Practicing a self-assured stance of head up, shoulders back and walking with confidence can be effective. Continue to impress upon your school-age child that they do not have to acknowledge negative behaviors or requests from their peers and this can be done both verbally and non-verbally, such as ignoring or walking away.
As children enter adolescence the need to be assertive becomes even more important as cliques form in earnest and kids now face having to decline to engage in risk behaviors such as drug and alcohol use, delinquency, and sexual activity. Many parents get very nervous about these situations and may tend to become more over-controlling; however this can make adolescents feel they can’t be trusted. Yet, it is also important to not swing to the other side and reduce monitoring and involvement too much.
It’s key to remember that even though the peer group becomes significant, parents remain so in the adolescent years and most teens still want and value guidance from their parents. Giving them time and space to share on their own timetable is a good strategy for parents and once the conversation happens it’s more about being a sounding board. Of course, if you feel your teen is not able to be assertive and is getting into serious trouble, intervening is essential. Teens still have under-developed decision-making skills.
Being appropriately assertive is a bit of a fine art. An important role as a parent is to coach, guide, and facilitate your child learning both the importance of being assertive and giving them opportunities to do so. In this way, your child is taking one more substantial step toward social competence and the benefits of healthy, satisfying peer relationships and friendships.
The assessments we use at Parent in the Know measure child assertiveness along with all aspects of social competence. Please visit our About Assessments Page to learn more.
Healy, K. L., Sanders, M. R., & Iyer, A. (2015). Parenting practices, children’s peer relationships and being bullied at school. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24(1), 127-140.
Lee, H. J. (2014). Relations of children’s proactive and reactive assertiveness to peer acceptance: Moderating effects of social interest. Psychological Reports, 114(3), 913-926.
About Parent in the Know
We specialize in parental role and child social-emotional research-based assessment and reporting for parents of preschoolers through adolescents. If you are interested in knowing where you fall on the continuum of parenting wellness and/or if you would like to know how your child is doing with regard to social-emotional wellness, I invite you to learn more and get started at www.parentintheknow.com. If you are a counselor, therapist, or parent educator who would like to include assessment in your practice through us, please visit the Partner Program on our website to learn more.
Written September 2016 by Dr. Lilla Dale McManis, President & CEO of Parent in the Know