Assertiveness isn’t necessarily innate. While it might come naturally to some people, it’s largely a skill — and an important one at that for both adults and kids. According to Lisa M. Schab, LCSW, author of Cool, Calm and Confident: A Workbook to Help Kids Learn Assertiveness Skills, assertiveness is the “healthiest style of communication. Assertiveness involves recognizing and standing up for our own rights, while at the same time recognizing and respecting the rights of others.”
Knowing how to defend yourself and respect others is especially relevant when it comes to bullying. As Schab said, “Kids who are genuinely confident and sure of themselves don’t need to bully, and, those who are bullied can take better care of themselves.”
Assertiveness works in all situations, giving kids guidelines for navigating everything from the playground to the slumber party, she said. It helps kids have healthy relationships and a solid self-esteem.
But just like adults, kids can have a tough time being assertive. One of the reasons assertiveness is difficult is because kids want to get what they want without the potential for pain, Schab said. “If we think that standing up for ourselves and asking for something directly might result in a ‘no’ for an answer and our egos can’t take that, we do what we think will get us what we want,” she said.
A child who wants to play a game with others but worries that asking nicely won’t work might either wait passively on the sidelines or demand aggressively that she play, too, Schab said.
Examples of Being Assertive
What does assertiveness look like in kids? Take the example of a child who receives a poor grade on a paper, Schab said. A passive child might complain to his or her friends or talk badly about the teacher. An aggressive child might make a rude comment to the teacher or write something offensive on the chalkboard, she said. However, an assertive child requests to speak to the teacher after class, and might say, according to Schab: “I feel confused and upset because I worked really hard on this paper and my grade doesn’t reflect that. Could you explain what I should have done differently, or give me a chance to make corrections?”
In another example, a child is waiting in line for the water fountain and a classmate pushes her out of the line. She responds by going back to her place in line and talking to the person who pushed her, Schab said. She might say calmly and confidently, “I think you wanted to get in line ahead of me, but I was waiting here and was ready to take my drink. You can get in line right after me if you want, but now it’s my turn.”
Schab heard a great story about a boy who’s hearing impaired. His classmates were making fun of his shoes and making mean comments. Rather than running away and feeling bad about himself or yelling and starting a fight, he told them that he really liked his shoes and simply walked away. “This boy had enough confidence in himself to not be bothered by the immaturity of the other kids, and to let them know that in an appropriate manner,” she said.
How to Help Kids be Assertive
Caregivers can model assertive behavior and teach kids directly. Both methods are effective, Schab said. “Parents can model assertiveness when interacting with family members, friends, making business calls, dealing with salespeople, or any person they have contact with during the course of the day.” As Schab said, of course that means that you must have a good grasp of assertiveness yourself. But, again, fortunately, it’s a skill you can learn and master. (Here’s how to be more assertive.)
Teach your kids directly by helping them figure out situations as they come up, she said. If your little girl comes home from school crying because another child teased her on the bus, tell her how to handle the situation assertively, Schab said. If your little boy is being excluded from a game, coach him on how to speak up and stand up for himself, she said.
Also helpful are teaching tools. Schab said that libraries are loaded with assertiveness resources. Her book, for instance, Cool, Calm and Confident offers 40 activities to help kids handle teasing and bullying and build a healthy self-esteem.
Assertive kids usually become assertive adults. “[Assertiveness] fosters insight, wisdom, patience, tolerance, confidence and acceptance,” Schab said. “It is the necessary building block to mature and peaceful relationships between all human beings.”