Most of us hope that as our children venture out into the world, they’ll possess enough innate assertiveness to set boundaries and navigate the common struggles of childhood like toy taking, unwanted roughhousing, unkind words, bullying. When our kids don’t stand up for themselves, it’s easy to assume that their lack of assertiveness is derived from a lack of self-confidence. Janet doesn’t believe that’s necessarily true and responds to two emails from listeners who are concerned about their children’s seeming inability to assert themselves in social situations. One parent describes her son being bullied on the school bus. Another says her daughter’s friend is clingy, bossy, and controlling, and this parent doesn’t believe her child has the self-confidence to set a boundary. Janet addresses each situation and offers advice for how the parents can help in the most effective manner. (This transcript includes a brief update from the parent concerned about her son on the bus.)
Transcript of “Encouraging Kids to Be More Assertive”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today I’m going to be talking about a topic that parents bring up a lot, and always have, in the classes that I’ve taught. Interestingly, when there’ll be children who are maybe one-and-a-half that are taking toys from each other, it’s often the parent of the child who’s not the taker, but the takee, who gets the most concerned. Because their child isn’t standing up for themselves, they’re just letting these things happen. They’re not being assertive. And we all want our children to feel confident and assertive, right? That’s going to help them in their life. As somebody who hasn’t always felt very assertive in life and has slowly built that trait for myself, I really do understand the concern. And so I’m going to be giving feedback to two different parents who brought their concerns to me in emails about their children’s assertiveness.
First I want to talk a little about assertiveness. It’s, I guess, a character trait, and we’re all born with the potential for a variety of character traits, but some more than others, right? Some of us have natural assertiveness, we’re born very assertive. Others are not. But it’s something that we can all grow into with this essential aspect in us. And that aspect is self-confidence. And, interestingly, both of the parents in these notes bring up self-confidence along with assertiveness that they want for their children, that they’re not seeing right now, and it’s concerning them.
So what helps children to feel more assertive? There are people in life who are very assertive that aren’t necessarily as self-confident underneath it all, but I would say all people who have healthy self-confidence have the ability also to be assertive. Maybe it’s not this big, cocky assertiveness, but it’s a quiet ability to say no, have boundaries, stick up for ourselves. So oftentimes, and in both of these cases, the key to helping our children feel more assertive is to fuel their self-confidence. And the way to do that is this word you hear me bring up a lot: trust. Trust in them.
Here’s the first note:
I hope you’re doing well, and thank you for your wonderful advice. It has been immensely helpful in my parenting journey so far. I have two children, an elder son who is five-and-a-half and a daughter who just turned 18 months. I have followed RIE principles since almost the beginning, with a lot of challenges, basically around setting boundaries and seeing the right perspective, what you call a different kind of lens. Anyway, I would say on a scale of one to 10, I have followed up to seven.
However, I have recently noticed that my son has been struggling asserting himself. I thought that having followed RIE, this should come naturally to him, but it hasn’t. He travels to school on the bus and has been facing some kind of bullying by other kids. Once by an older kid he was sitting next to who was hitting him and roughhousing in the name of play, and a second time by a child his age who was also hurting him and fighting him. Both times he did not come home and tell me immediately, he told me much later in the day when somehow the topic of the bus came about. I asked him why he didn’t tell the bus monitor and said, “Why don’t you push the kid off?” I know both times my response was not very attuned, but I did later try to acknowledge his feelings.
I was left wondering, Why is he not asserting himself and sharing things that happen with me immediately? What is it that I need to change? I want him to always assert his boundaries and be confident enough to do so. He’s in a traditional school that praises good behavior and kind of shames bad behavior, so that’s another disadvantage. How should I help my son in such environments in a way that he can be confident, assertive, and feel good about himself?
I also forgot to mention before I started that in both cases with these notes, and with something like developing assertiveness, this isn’t a quick fix situation. We can’t say just the right words to our child that’s going to turn this around suddenly. It’s a slow evolution in our child’s development that we really can’t even rush, but we can fuel it. We can fuel it by fueling their self-confidence and not doing things that defuel their self-confidence. I know that people that listen here are probably used to this, that most of my suggestions are not going to bring a quick resolution to the issues that parents and children are facing, unfortunately. Sorry, I wish I could. But just like humans of other ages, children are not simplistic beings. They can’t just flip a switch and be something different. It takes time. And that makes it even harder for us to do what I’m suggesting, which is trust.
So in this case, with this boy, there could be two reasons that he’s not telling his parent right away about these incidents on the bus. One could be that this isn’t a huge deal to him. A lot of times when children are going through things socially, maybe it’s a little disturbing, but they’re also sort of interested in, Wow, I’m getting this attention, or What’s going on here? So this might not be as much of a crisis as this parent worries that it is.
And of course, if she has any doubts, and maybe I would just do this prophylactically, I would, instead of talking to your son about what he should do, I would suggest some other ways to handle giving him feedback and helping him process the situation. But what I would do is go to that bus service or the school or whoever’s in charge of this, and not make a big scene that this is bullying because we’re not sure if this is really bullying. It sounds like some out-of-control behavior, but I wouldn’t jump immediately to bullying. But I would let them know and say, “Really, it seems like there needs to be a little more supervision on the bus.” And if the bus driver can’t do it, because they’re obviously busy, maybe they can have some student volunteers assigned that are already on the bus to monitor the other children. To just keep everybody safe, and when there’s roughhousing, to stop it when it starts. Peer leaders are often the most effective. So I would consider that if you have a serious concern that your child may be getting hurt or getting bullied or that he’s upset about this, that he feels out of control, that he feels alone and he needs that support. I would absolutely do that on that level with whoever’s in charge of that situation.
But getting back to your son— So what we really want is our child to be able to stand up and say, “No, this is not okay!” And that’s such a hard thing for children to do with peers. It really is. We could have a very confident, assertive child who still struggles with that, because peers are so important to them. They’re trying to figure it out, they want to connect with each other, they want to be liked. And there’s nothing weak about that. It’s part of their learning, their goal is to connect with other children. So it makes sense that to tell another child no or to have a strong boundary with them is the hardest thing. And it doesn’t mean that he’s not an assertive person or a confident person.
So the fact that he’s not telling her right away could be that this isn’t a big deal for him, but it could also be that he’s concerned about her reaction. And it sounds like, without meaning to, this mom did the normal thing, which is react. Hey, why didn’t you do something? Don’t let them do that to you. What her son feels from that, and he may have anticipated that she might’ve responded this way, is that his response to whatever happened on the bus, she’s without meaning to, kind of judging it. He feels judged that he didn’t do the right thing. Why didn’t he push the guy off him? Why didn’t he tell somebody? Very hard things, again, for a child to do with peers. And then he feels that his mother feels he didn’t do the right thing either. So that does the opposite of fueling him with confidence.
And the fact that he has an 18-month-old sibling means it’s likely he’s been judged around his behavior with that child as well, possibly, because that’s a common thing that happens. It’s really hard not to judge as a parent when your older child is showing aggression or just dislike towards the baby or having other behavior that’s around that change. Oftentimes they feel a lot of judgment around those behaviors, understandably. But it’s hard for children because they already are coming from a vulnerable place. Which doesn’t mean that this is a problem that we can’t turn around, at all. It’s just to be aware of.
So, for whatever reason, he didn’t want to tell her because maybe he sensed he didn’t respond in the way she would’ve wanted or that he would’ve felt judged. And what we want to do for him—and what this parent wants to do—is the opposite: to help him feel trusted in his process of handling these situations. The way to do that is to take an interest in his point of view, instead of judging it. Being open to, Oh, you’re telling me this. How did this make you feel? What did that feel like?
Now, where this parent is now, she may have to try to dial back, because her child knows that she’s maybe already disappointed in him on some level with the way that he’s handling this. The way to dial it back is just to be a sounding board for a while. Before you give any kind of advice, I would only stick with—and really meaning it, so not kind of leading him with, “What did you think about that? You should have thought it was bad,” but really open to, Ah, what was that like? And since she has also said these words to him that he may have felt judged by, she might even dial it all the way back with an explanation and say, “I know that I told you you should do this or that before, and I was thinking about that and I don’t know the right thing to do. And I really trust you. You have a good sense of yourself and you have a good sense of what’s right or wrong. So I’m not going to give you more advice of what to do. I want you to be able to explore it with me.” Maybe not all those words, but that kind of attitude, so that we’ve put it all out there. Yes, I jumped to telling you you should have done it this way or that way, and I realize that and I’m taking it all back. Let’s start again at square one. I just want to know how you felt. And maybe this won’t even happen again for this child, but if it does, that’s where I would bring it up.
And in other situations, too. That trust in him, taking an interest in our child’s point of view instead of judging it, it helps them to feel safe to open up to us. Which judging them doesn’t, of course. And out of that, not deciding what he should feel, he might have a different perspective. Like I said, maybe that’s a good sign that he didn’t report this right away, maybe it wasn’t a big deal to him. How did this make you feel? And then when she’s dialing it back and saying those things about, “I know I gave you this advice and I told you what I thought you should do, but I actually trust you more on this,” she might add, “And if there’s something you can’t handle, please let me know right away and we can figure it out together.”
We want to try to trust and respect our child’s ways of managing conflict with their peers, rather than giving them ours. Because children have a better sense of this than we give them credit for, but they can feel so overrun by us, right? And our opinions about it. So, that openness. And then when it starts to feel right that he’s sharing more with you, giving open-ended feedback, like, “I wonder what would happen if you said this, or you just turned away and put your hand up, or you might want to try this.” Just offering, very gently, very openly, “I wonder . . .” Considering this as working together with him, trying to take his lead.
And again, not expecting quick results. These are long processes. The same with other kinds of character traits. It takes a lot of trust in them and the space and time for them to come to these situations with that vital aspect, which is self-confidence. My instincts, what I’m choosing to do, or what I’m choosing to not do yet, is where I’m at right now. And it’s okay. And maybe he will find his own way that isn’t our way of setting a boundary, even. Maybe he’ll find a way to break the ice with these children and be their friends. Some children use humor. Give him the space and time to find his way.
It’s very challenging as parents, I know. I’m talking like it’s easy and I know it’s not. And I love that this parent cares enough to say, “What is it that I need to change?” I would just say, let go of the judging, trust him more. He’ll get there, I promise. And maybe he’ll have ways of dealing that really surprise you. That’s happened to me.
Okay, so here’s another letter that’s around the same topic but a little bit different:
On many occasions in your podcast and book, you’ve touched on how to work through tricky situations with sibling dynamics, establishing boundaries, connecting with my kids one-on-one. The list could go on forever. You’ve really helped me navigate this exciting and fulfilling parenting world.
However, I have a question for you, and this is regarding friend dynamics. My daughter, who is in second grade, has a good handful of friends that she enjoys playing with. She has some wonderful, healthy friendships, and I feel so happy for her. And I see the happiness she gets from her friends, too. However, there’s one friend in her class that she plays with who has been recently diagnosed with anxiety. This friend constantly makes our daughter unhappy at school, either by bragging, bossing her around, excluding her, tattling on her, little digs. Sometimes this leads to tears or my daughter saying she had a “thumbs down” day at school. They are in class together, have lunch and recess together. It even happened during summer at camp. These little interactions happen at varying times during the school day. And from what I understand from my daughter and other parents is that this particular kid does it to other girls as well.
My husband and I try our best to be mindful of her friend’s diagnosis and ask our daughter to be patient, give this girl grace, but also create her own boundaries. We’ve coached our daughter to stand up for herself and establish her boundaries. For instance, “We can’t be friends if you’re going to talk to me like this. Your words are hurtful. I don’t feel the same way as you do. We cannot play together if you are excluding so-and-so.” The friend responds with a burst of anger, stomps off, and our daughter feels like the situation is unresolved and feels sad. Occasionally the friend will apologize, but the next day something else will happen.
I’m doing my best to give my daughter the chance to work through this on her own, but something comes up at least once a week and she says she wants a friendship break. I don’t blame her. I recognize that she can somewhat create a boundary for herself, but it’s hard to avoid someone that you spend all day with. I’m at a loss on how to navigate this situation. I want my daughter to feel safe, free to play with friends, and feel confident that she can navigate tricky social situations and not be affected by this behavior. But I also recognize that, while she is a confident, smart, loving seven-year-old, she does not have all of the tools to respond to her friend or other similar social situations.
Thank you in advance for your time and consideration.
So yes, this girl does sound confident indeed to me. And how wonderful that she has some great friendships and knows how to have healthy friendships, and she knows what that feels like. And this friend with the anxiety isn’t her only example of what friends can be like. So that’s great, right?
It’s interesting to me that when this parent says, “The friend responds with a burst of anger, stomps off, and our daughter feels like the situation is unresolved and feels sad.” So I’m sensing—I could be totally wrong on this—that if her daughter was just trying to avoid this person and this was just a big pain for her, she could do that. She wouldn’t feel sad. I think she feels sad for a lovely reason, that she wants to try to have a friendship with this girl, she wants to try to connect with her. Maybe she does see beyond the bluster of the behavior, and that’s what’s making her sad, for this girl, that it’s unresolved. Because if she didn’t care, she wouldn’t care if it was unresolved. She could just work on ignoring the person, right? So I think she’s wanting to learn some really important things here. Maybe not consciously, but she’s staying engaged with this girl, that she wants to learn from this.
So going back to what will help fortify her, it sounds like she’s on her way. And even the fact that she says she wants a friendship break—yeah, she wants a friendship break because she considers this a friend, but it’s a friend that is very, very challenging and she wants a break from that. So when she says things like that, I would encourage, “Yeah, of course you do. You’re trying really hard with this girl and she’s difficult for you, right? She’s hurtful. It doesn’t feel good, but you’re kind of sticking in there with it. And I really admire that.” I would tell her that. And getting back to fueling her with the self-confidence she needs to keep moving in this sort of direction. I think she’s already well on her way, and this parent says she is self-confident. We want to trust in her. And that’s what I was speaking to, the idea of trusting that it’s not that she can’t say no or navigate this girl, even. It’s that she’s feeling the challenges of it, and that’s not a terrible thing. It could be seen as a very positive learning process. So I would try to trust in that, and taking an interest in her point of view instead of judging it.
That’s where we have to be careful though, because, just like with this other parent before, the parent of the boy on the bus, it can be a delicate thing to give our children direction in these situations. It works better usually when we’re more open as a sounding board to hearing what they think, and then maybe gently guiding them with, “I wonder what would happen if . . .”
And it sounds like this parent, with the best of intentions, she asked her “daughter to be patient, give this girl grace, but also create her own boundaries.” And they’ve coached her to stand up for herself and establish her boundaries, for instance, “We can’t be friends if you’re going to talk to me like that.” But even the way this starts out, they asked her to give this girl grace. That’s a beautiful sentiment and a message we want to give children about other children that have struggles or anyone that has struggles, is to try to understand and have compassion and give them grace.
But I wonder if this girl wouldn’t have done that anyway, and maybe it would feel more trusting and confidence-building for her if we didn’t give her that instruction. And I know this parent already did, but I’m just saying for the next time. Or even to dial it back and say, “We said that we want you to give her grace and that we want you to stand up for yourself and have boundaries. But I think you’ve got all these instincts already, I feel like. And so I don’t think we need to tell you that stuff. We’re just here for you to share. And if you want any thoughts from us about how to handle things, let’s talk about that. But we trust you, the way you’re navigating this. It feels like you know what you’re doing.” Or, “How does it feel?” Even better, maybe.
That’s what I mean by trusting, not judging. It’s not this heavy thing, like either of these parents are judging their children in some negative way, at all. But even assuming that our daughter needs our help to do things that she’s not actually requesting, that can feel a little like, Oh, my parents are trying to steer me in this direction, so that’s the direction they think I should go in. It’s this very, very subtle form of judging. Nobody should feel bad about it. It’s just a way of actually practicing that very challenging thing for us, that trust. And taking an interest in her point of view. What is that like? How is it to be with her when she does these things? What do you feel like doing? What do you feel like saying? But very openly, not steering, not with an edge of how we think she should feel. Hard to do. Kind of a fun challenge in a weird way, for me at least. But we’re not going to be perfect at this. And so it’s just awareness, just stuff to try.
So, not deciding what she should feel, not deciding that she needs to stand up for herself in the way that we think she should and have boundaries. Because children having boundaries or handling challenging situations, which is the way they build a lot of confidence, not by us telling them wonderful things about themselves, but the fact that they can face adversity. Which both of these children are doing, they’re facing adversity. That’s how you build confidence. But we don’t want to undermine that by saying, You need me to tell you how to do this, because they might handle adversity their own way.
I would dial this back with this girl too, and just be a sounding board from here on out. And maybe even say, “I know we said these different things you should say to her, but that doesn’t seem like it’s working. She’s just getting mad. What do you want to say to her? How do you feel?” And maybe instead of saying, “Your words are hurtful,” she might say, “I feel hurt” or “Ouch!” Or one thing you might offer is when she asks you to play, but she wants to exclude other children: “I wonder how it would be if you just said, ‘Thank you, but no, I’m not going to do that.'” Instead of commenting about what the girl’s doing, just talking about herself, using only “I statements.” And not expecting that she’s going to be able to change this girl, because I doubt very much it’s in her power or anyone’s power. So I don’t think bringing these realities to light for this other girl is really going to be effective. It sounds like it’s not effective, because the friend feels judged and responds with a burst of anger and stomps off. But the way the friend responds can’t be our child’s responsibility. That’s why I would suggest maybe she just says less and not to expect this girl to take things gracefully because it seems like she’s not going to. And that’s okay, not everybody will. But that’s what having boundaries is. It’s being okay with other people’s reactions to them.
So we want ideally to fuel her self-confidence, respecting her ways of managing conflicts with peers. “What do you feel like saying when she says that?” And then giving the most open-ended feedback, when it’s time for that. “I wonder what would happen if you . . .” And then, just as I was saying with the boy on the bus, if your child feels really brought down by the situation, or maybe she’s feeling stuck—to me, it sounds like she’s handling it really well. “I just need a break from this friend.” “Yeah! Yes, you do. You can say no thanks to her.”
Just to reiterate: It’s a slow process. We’re not going to see immediate changes. But it’s a practice for us as parents that really applies to so many things, so many areas of their development and their learning. Trusting them, so that they can have that self-trust, which is where all of these positive character traits spring from. Taking an interest in their point of view instead of judging it with ours. Not deciding what children should feel. They might have a different perspective, and that’s a good thing. Their perspective is where their self-confidence and assertiveness is going to come from. Dialing it back if we need to. Being a sounding board first and foremost, and most of the time respecting children’s own ways of managing conflict with peers. Being open to them, rather than assuming that ours are the best way or the only way. And when feedback is requested, or we’re really able to be in that open sounding board place, gently giving open-ended feedback. “I wonder . . .”
These are ways we can fuel our children, fuel their evolution, their development. This magical thing: self-confidence. We can’t give it to them, but we can help fuel it. I really hope some of this helps.
Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And my books, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting, you can get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and apple.com.
And now, at last, I have a online course! Learn more at: NoBadKidsCourse.com.
Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.
UPDATE: The parent who asked about her son on the bus kindly shared this update:
A big thank you for responding to my email below. I heard your podcast on it and as soon as it popped on my iPhone I was like this is what I was looking for. I did not know you were actually addressing my concern. I can’t thank you enough because I have to say this concern has been on my mind ever since.
As I was listening you I just couldn’t help but notice how on point you are regarding my son even though you haven’t met him. Yes, even I felt somewhere that it wasn’t a big deal for him and he was not negatively affected with the roughhousing and hitting. He is a highly sensitive and intelligent boy so I believe he understands the kids quite well.
I also felt he was putting it before me to check how I would react. And my reaction was not the ideal. You are on point that he needs a sounding board, which I haven’t been, to be honest.
I can’t thank you enough for the immensely great work that you are doing free of cost. I wish you all the good things in life. I will follow your advice and keep updating you with our progress.