“LifeLines is a monthly column dedicated to addressing issues of mental, behavioural, and social health. The column appears on the 1st weekend of the month, and is written by professionals in the field of social work, mental health, and community medicine”.
By Michele de la Coudray-Blake
Assertiveness, which describes a firm, non-threatening and non-abusive approach to articulating what is right for that person, should not be confused with aggression, which is a threatening, abusive and invasive approach to getting personal needs met. The former approach satisfies both the need of the individual, and the feeling of being respectful of the other individual. The latter approach promotes anger, frustration, discord and feelings of violation – feelings that we want to avoid in most situations.
What is the importance of promoting assertiveness in children? Children who are assertive are undoubtedly more confident than their counterparts, more resilient, are engaged in fewer situations of conflict with their peers, and are less likely to be enticed into antisocial behaviours by their peers. They are usually more self-aware which then facilitates more self-control, often have fewer instances of situational stress and depression, and most importantly, become adults who can function responsibly and in a civil manner in society.
Children who learn this skill, do so because they are allowed a certain latitude (within appropriate contexts and boundaries) in school and at home that helps them to understand their strengths and capabilities, that helps them to learn to trust that instinctive sensation of what feels right for them, and which helps them to feel comfortable with their choices. When children learn to feel comfortable with self, it helps to positively influence the act of taking responsibility for choices, and for boldly dealing with consequences for these choices, even when those consequences are less than appealing. Additionally, assertiveness implies knowledge of and confidence in self that ultimately facilitates goal directed and problem solving behaviours – capabilities that lead to success in life.
Raising an Assertive Child
So how do we promote assertiveness in children? What strategies and inherent parenting skills are most likely to help foster healthy expression and that sense of personal value that assertiveness promotes?
Allowing choice between two or three available and equally workable options (e.g “Which snack would you like to take to school today?”) gives children the opportunity to understand their likes and dislikes and gives them the ability to practice the art of making decisions, as well as considering consequences and benefits associated with the decisions made. It promotes self understanding – children learn to know what things work for them and why, and so they have an increasing sense of confidence in realizing that they know themselves.
Use Open Ended Questions in Discussions
Open ended questions facilitate discussion; they allow parents and caregivers insight into the child’s world and way of thinking, promote rational and clear thinking because they provide the framework for explaining and defending feelings, increase articulation, and promote the child’s ability to explain the ways that things affect them. Some examples of open ended questions include, “What are your thoughts/feelings about…?” “Tell me what would happen if “x” were to take place?”, “What is the best way to deal with the situation?” These types of questions almost ensure that children learn how to understand how they perceive situations and solve problems. Even very small children could be included in this type of engagement, for even young children already formulate thoughts of how things affect them.
Help Children To Learn To Trust What Feels Right To Them
Allow for that feeling to be articulated. Children, like adults, use their personality, their experiences, and their knowledge in a combined equation to help them determine how things impact them and what feels right for them. Children should not be degraded or made to feel wrong, if their particular combination of factors makes them like things done differently to another child. That trust in self, and that comfort in being able to identify that which feels ‘right’ for them, allows children the ability to speak up and assert themselves in situations that could potentially be dangerous or harmful – especially in cases of sexual abuse and other types of violations. Also, continuing along that same notion of developing that sense of trusting who/what feels right to them, children should understand that they do not have to be friends with everyone, especially if someone makes them feel uncomfortable. Sometimes adults inadvertently pressure children into denying that instinctual feeling, by implying that having a feeling about something or someone without having ‘a good reason’ means that the feeling is invalid. Parents and caregivers who validate a simple “I can’t explain why I don’t like this situation, but I just don’t” extend to that child, the respect of really hearing him assert himself in a particular situation.
Children should be aware of the following
People can change their minds about things; adults do it all the time. Different situations, new understanding of information, and changes in realities are all reasonable considerations when adults change their minds about situations; children should know that as they continue to assess facts and perceptions about situations that affect them, they have the right to change their minds.
People don’t know everything, and the only way to ensure learning and knowledge continually takes place, is by being comfortable in acknowledging when they do not know or understand something. Children need to be encouraged to recognize that there is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know” in situations where that is the case. Their ability to be direct and genuine in relation to this prepares the child to be comfortable in continuing to seek clarity, understanding and knowledge, and is an assertive approach to developing.
No one has the right to make children feel guilty, ashamed, devalued or foolish about any thought or feeling they may have about any issue. When children are allowed to respectfully air their views in a forum that is conducive to that, they learn to respect and appreciate the value in differences, they learn to tolerate these differences, just as someone has demonstrated that sense of value and respect when dealing with their differences. They become comfortable in recognizing that differences ought not to come with insensitive values and judgments. Consequently then, there is more of a tendency to take ownership for perceptions, views and thoughts about things that impact them.
Promoting assertiveness in children is a process which ideally should be started as soon as possible, so that when children face the challenges of peer pressure in school, they have the real ability to cope, and maintain a healthy perspective of how to maneuver their situations. Promoting assertiveness does not mean giving up parental control and management, but ironically, children who are more assertive tend to be more understanding of and respectful of the boundaries which govern family, community and societal functioning.
Michele de la Coudray-Blake is Director-Counselling Department