In all the years I’ve been educating, observing and researching the social-emotional issues amongst young people, at the top of my list is always assertiveness skills. Not every child or young adult has the innate ability to speak up or know how to advocate for himself. For over two decades, I’ve observed children and teenagers in classroom settings, social environments, as well as in the company of their own parents and adults, and I can attest to the fact that asserting themselves has by far been the most challenging for them and for various reasons.
Kids with social anxiety or low self-esteem, as successful as many have been academically, struggle with the social angst at the thought of speaking up to a peer or an adult, and some have even expressed to me how it’s hindered them emotionally and socially.
Sometimes their social anxiety has reached excessive levels that have caused major setbacks with their ability to be able to navigate their social life and life in general. The overwhelming surge of anxiety will cause a child’s emotions to flare up at any given moment – meeting new people, teachers, going to parties, even just hanging at a friend’s house or with groups of friends and people they already know.
So, in order to help young children and young adults become more assertive and self-expressive, we have to first think back to when we were their age. Although every person is different in his or her own way, children and teens have that uncanny sense to imitate behaviors, or react similarly to who they live with and spend the most time with. So, what does this have to do with kids being assertive? A lot. When we experience our child falling in the playground or having an accident, they look up at us and watch our emotions, right? Are we freaking out, acting nervous, or calm? They feed off of our energy, which in turn can determine how they’ll respond to unpredictable situations in real life.
Much like in a social situation for them that they might fear being anxious about, certain signals and thought processes can have an immediate effect on them. If, for example, your child is making the transition from elementary to middle school, the mere thought of asserting himself now in 6th grade, walking the new hallways, trying to figure out a locker combo, worrying about being late for class, needing to communicate and engage with more teachers (not just one) and meeting new friends in a much bigger environment than elementary school, he may hold back and give in to his nerves. What’s even worse is when the child knows how stressed mom or dad has been in the previous months, talking about the middle school transition with other people, right in front of him. This can only trigger those emotions to cause enormous levels of stress on the child.
Even in other scenarios, where the child is surrounded with a group of friends that he already knows, the child might hesitate in standing up for something that he sees as not right– for fear of being judged, rejected or looked upon in a negative way. So, the natural response is often to avoid. Better to not say anything at all than to stand up for something or someone and say something stupid (as they may think).
Being assertive is a skill, and quite frankly, many adults struggle with this as well. The common denominator is often self-esteem. I was quite the shy little girl who would hardly speak up at any given time. I felt safe and comfortable with my small group of friends, but I’d rather hide under a table than initiate discussion in a classroom with the teacher and peers. My social anxiety was about the fear of being judged or looked upon as awkward and foolish– I wanted to be accepted. So, in terms of asserting myself, I opted to not speak. I kept it safe. That was the way I rolled – until about the age of 26. Through my internship, I learned about the importance of giving up embarrassment for the sake of being happier. When families communicated to me how inhibited their child was, all I could think of was myself, and that shy little girl who was afraid to speak up.
So, here’s the good news for those with children who tend to lack being assertive. It’s okay to feel anxious. It’s okay to feel scared. It’s okay to lack being brave at moments of uncertainty. Most of all, it’s okay to fail. I’ve failed many times throughout my life. Not just on exams, but in relationships. Where I once used to hold back how I felt, and surrounded myself with unhealthy people and friendships, I now understand the meaning of self-care. And, with self-care, comes the skill of having to assert myself when I need to, and remove myself from unhealthy situations or people who make me feel uncomfortable.
I now teach my own children and students this skill. My older daughter knew from a very young age what didn’t feel right to her, and she learned how to stand up for herself and for others. It took a bit longer for my younger daughter however to work on her assertiveness. Now, she knows that if she doesn’t advocate for herself, she’ll wind up in a situation that doesn’t make her feel good or with people who bring her down.
The protective part of us as parents is taking care of our kids’ emotions. But, we know all too well that if we continue “taking care” of their feelings, they won’t grow into independent, self-sufficient young adults. Validate their sense of fear, anxiety or just plain old crummy feelings they’re having, and let them take the lead in expressing themselves. The first step is being able to express themselves to their own family before they can express themselves to the outside world.
Allow your kids to stumble. Whatever you do, don’t label them as shy, especially right in front of them, with others around. That will only create a negative stigma and character trait they might not even have in the first place. Stop speaking up for them, especially in front of others. Allow them to experience and go through the emotions. But, just remember and go back to when they were toddlers and they felt scared or hurt. Assure them that it’s okay, that it’s normal and that they’re not alone. They’ve got this. Talk it through and let them know your presence. Sometimes, the less said, the better. It’s just them knowing you’re there to guide them when they need you.
Lastly, take off your own shield that keeps you from doing certain things you really want to do. Curb the worrying. Stop playing it safe all the time. Go out of your own comfort zone. Take that leap that perhaps has prevented you from moving to the next level in your life. Your children are watching. They see you. They hear you. They react to you. They take it all in and then decide if they’re going to do the same. Remember? Cycles repeat.
Assert yourself, but don’t do it for your kid. Give your child the confidence to spread his wings and assert himself. And then watch him soar before your eyes.