A fourth grade girl sits in my office, tears in her eyes. She had a really hard week. She struggles with anxiety and inattention in the classroom, and that makes learning difficult on a good week. That wasn’t what brought her tears, though. She can cope with the mixed emotions that go hand-in-hand with learning problems. What made an average week terrible for this little girl was peer conflict.
“If I do what they say, they let me play with them. If I don’t because I don’t want to get in trouble, they walk away and tell me not to follow.”
Caught between her morals (she generally makes good choices and tends to consider right from wrong before making choices) and her desire to remain part of a peer group she’s known since kindergarten, she froze. To stand up to them was to risk losing them (for the day, anyway) but to follow the herd was to risk getting in trouble. She couldn’t make a decision. In the end, they left her standing alone, too anxious to make a move.
This particular child is one of the quiet ones. She’s introverted and tends to stick to a small peer group of trusted friends, and she almost never leads the group. She prefers to avoid conflict as much as possible and has difficulty stand up to her friends.
She’s not alone. Many children struggle to assert their thoughts and feelings, even when they know that speaking up is the right thing to do. “Yes, our kids do have different temperaments and some are shyer and more sensitive,” explains Michele Borba, Ed.D, author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. “The good news is that assertiveness is comprised of skills that can be taught.”
Assertiveness skills play an important role in a variety of situations, from the playground to the classroom to a slumber party, but knowing how to stand up for yourself and others is especially important when it comes to bullying, teasing, peer pressure and other negative behaviors.
It’s important to remember that building assertiveness skills takes time and practice. One role-play won’t do the trick. Kids need to practice both at home and out in the world as much as possible. Although that might sound like a huge undertaking, it’s actually fairly easy once you get into the assertiveness habit.
Try these strategies to help your quiet ones learn to stand up to negative behavior:
Talk about it.
All too often we tell kids what to do without actually giving them details on what we mean. “Be assertive” is a fairly bland statement. It lacks an explanation. I always encourage parents to discuss different communication styles with kids.
- Passive: Passive communicators struggle to make eye contact, use a very quiet voice and act as if other peoples’ rights are more important than their own.
- Aggressive: Aggressive communicators are loud, imposing (they might try to stand taller than others) and act as if their rights are more important than the rights of others.
- Assertive: Assertive communicators make eye contact, use a calm but firm voice and respect their own rights and the rights of others equally.
Use characters from books, TV and movies to illustrate these communication styles.
Be the model you want your kid to copy,” says Borba. “Stand up for your views, even if they may not be popular.” This can be a tough one, especially when views clash.
The key is to model assertive communication skills. Teach your kids to follow these steps when asserting views:
- Remain calm.
- Make eye contact.
- Use a clear, confident voice.
There are times when we have to agree to disagree, but that doesn’t mean that we silence our voices and sneak away. Practicing statements like, “I appreciate that you explained your point of view. I have a different opinion, but now I know where you’re coming from,” teaches kids that it’s okay to disagree.
Use the mirror.
I often find that the quiet ones struggle to use assertive voice tone and assertive body posturing. They might learn to project their voices, but if they’re looking down, the words will only hit the ground.
Have your child practice making assertive statements in the mirror.
- Make eye contact in the mirror.
- Stand tall.
- Hold your shoulders back.
- Keep your arms at your sides.
- Have 3-5 assertive statements prepared to practice in the mirror. (Ex: “I don’t want to play football. Are you interested in tag, instead?”)
Practicing in the mirror gives kids a visual. By altering their body postures and facial expressions as they practice assertive statements, they can see what works and what doesn’t.
Try realistic role-plays.
I once used a social skills game with a group of fourth grade girls who had difficulty getting along. The game lasted about five minutes. One role-play was more absurd than the next. On the bright side, they bonded over the ridiculous “real life scenarios” presented in the game. On the not-so-bright side, they all refused to act them out.
We took matters into our own hands, instead. Each child came up with five scenarios that required assertive communication and we put them in a hat. One-by-one, we worked through the scenarios (taken right from their own experiences), trying at least two solutions to each problem. The girls got really into it and helped each other when they got stuck. It worked. In the coming weeks they all reported on the solutions they put to use in the classroom and on the playground.
It’s easier for kids to use role-play when the scenarios are realistic. Have your child come up with the problems and take turns acting as the bully and victim or aggressive and passive communicators. Practicing the problem from both sides can be eye opening for kids.
It’s no big secret that kids love to watch other people when they’re out and about. Kids take their cues from what they see out in the world. Try making a game of it. Ask if your child can find one passive communicator, one aggressive communicator and one assertive communicator the next time you’re out and about (talk about this on the way home, of course). Ask them to describe which behaviors helped them categorize communication style.
Practice these strategies early and often. The more kids practice speaking up at home, the greater confidence and assertiveness they will have out in the world!