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Assertiveness Training for Children Vital to Their Self-Esteem

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Harriet Webster writes for Working Mother magazine

When her friend Sarah shouts, “You give that to me!” and grabs for Mara’s new doll, the preschooler surrenders her treasure without protest. Then she bursts into tears.

Eight-year-old Mark hangs on the fringes of a group of classmates organizing a basketball game at recess. They choose up sides, ignoring him. When he asks if he can play, he is told that they already have enough players, so he sadly drifts off to another part of the schoolyard.

When Nicole, 12, is pressured by a boy to attend an unchaperoned party, she goes even though she doesn’t want to and it means fibbing to her parents. Eager to measure up in the eyes of the group, she is afraid that if she says no she will be excluded from their other activities.

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Mara, Mark and Nicole have never learned to be assertive--to stand up for themselves. Inexperienced in the art of getting their own needs met, they allow themselves to be manipulated by their peers. They are unable to make decisions that support their values and feelings. The result is that they continually feel a little bad about themselves without knowing why.

As parents we have to understand how vital it is to help our children know they have the right to state their wants and needs. The child who has developed a strong sense of his own value by the time he attends preschool will usually get along well with the other children. This sense of self-confidence will reap continued benefits as he enters adolescence and is faced with the increasing complexities of coping with peer pressure.

The first step is to accept your child as he is. “Assertion grows from the permission to express feelings, all of them, even the negative ones,” says Los Angeles psychologist Don Fleming, author of “How to Stop the Battle With Your Child” and “How to Stop the Battle With Your Teen-Ager” (both published by Prentice Hall).

Although no mother likes to hear the words “I think you’re mean,” children need to vent their anger and frustration much the way adults do. If you are overcritical too often or too soon about the negative feelings a child has, “you may squelch the ability of the child to be assertive,” Fleming says.

There are ways to deal with a child’s darker feelings without repressing his sense of himself.

Let’s take the case of the child who wants Mara’s doll. Had Sarah’s mother been around when she grabbed it, the incident could have been turned into a valuable lesson. Sarah’s mother could have said “Sarah, I understand how much you want that doll. But it belongs to Mara, and she’s sad now that you’ve taken it away like that. Give it back and ask her in a little while if you could hold it just for a bit.”

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This would teach Sarah--who is acting aggressively--to respect the rights of Mara. That’s an important element of assertive behavior--stating one’s wants without trampling on somebody else.

Mara’s mother, had she witnessed this scene, could ask Mara why she didn’t say no when Sarah demanded the doll. Mara may believe that Sarah won’t be her friend anymore if Mara refuses to give her the doll.

Mara needs help figuring out whether this assumption is true. Her mother could ask her to pretend that Sarah was the one with the new doll. Would she forsake Sarah’s friendship just because Sarah wouldn’t hand over the goods? The answer, of course, is no.

It would also help Mara if she could express how angry she felt when Sarah snatched the doll. Probably Mara’s mother has trained her to deny feelings like anger, because it isn’t “nice.” But this training just drives the emotion underground where it can’t be dealt with but will now cause quiet turmoil.

A child who habitually responds to questions about his preference or ideas with “I don’t care” or “You decide” is sending a warning signal that he lacks assertiveness and the self-esteem that supports it.

If he can’t assert himself with his parents, he is undoubtedly having trouble making his wants and needs known outside the home.

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Let’s say you ask your son how he would like to celebrate his birthday, and he says, “You decide.” Give him some practice in asserting his wishes by saying, “I really want it to be your decision, your choice.”

Help him out by offering concrete alternatives: “Would you like to go to a restaurant for a family dinner or would you prefer to take your friends bowling or roller-skating?”

Once you involve him in the decision-making process, he may come up with ideas of his own.

It’s also important to recognize that there is a relationship between independence and assertiveness. Some children learn within the family to rely on other people to intuit and meet their needs, instead of assuming the responsibility themselves. This is often the case with the youngest child or “baby of the family,” who is constantly catered to by siblings and parents.

Instead of learning to take care of himself, such a child is conditioned to depend upon others. As he grows older, he is likely to flounder when he finds that his teachers and peers do not fill in for him as his family does.

One way for parents to reverse this pattern is to consistently praise and reward independent actions (including simple tasks like getting dressed in the morning). At the same time, pay as little attention as possible when your child tries to wheedle you into doing things for him that he can easily handle himself.

Appropriate praise is important to all children because it helps them develop self-esteem. By praising small but noteworthy behavior, like reading a book to a younger sibling, you help your child feel that he is a worthwhile person.

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It’s also important to praise your child when he practices assertiveness in a situation of conflict. You might say, “I’m glad you told me you were angry,” or “I was proud of the way you told Jody you didn’t want to tease the cat.” As his self-esteem flourishes, so will his confidence in himself and his ability to express his own needs.

It is crucial to avoid praising children for passivity. The child who regularly gets positive feedback for being “good as gold” or for being “so quiet we almost forgot you were here,” begins to feel that he pleases adults best by doing nothing, which in turn tells her that she’s not really worth much unless she disappears into the woodwork.

The most powerful message parents can deliver on assertiveness is their own behavior. The adage “actions speak louder than words” rings true here, according to Louis Kruger, assistant professor of education at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., who contends that “parents need to demonstrate through their actions that they don’t say yes when they want to say no.”

When someone steps in front of a parent in the movie line and the parent doesn’t do anything about it, the child may take the wrong lesson, Kruger explains. If the parent had said politely, “I think we were here first. The end of the line is back there,” the child would have had an opportunity to observe assertiveness in action.

When Anna noticed that her teen-age daughter continually let her friends walk all over her, she tried to figure out why. Her husband observed that Anna herself regularly baby-sat her brother’s children at the last moment even if it meant changing her own family’s plans. She also frequently worked late, compensating for a procrastinating co-worker in order to make deadlines.

When Anna recognized her own pattern and determined to change it (“I can’t watch your kids anymore on the weekend unless you talk to me about it at least a week ahead”), her daughter soon began to articulate some guidelines of her own (“I’d like to help you baby-sit your brother, but I need to work on my paper”). What Anna and her daughter did was to begin to take back some control of their own lives by politely, yet clearly, stating their limits.

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For many youngsters, mastering assertiveness skills takes on new importance as they reach adolescence. They find themselves torn between remaining true to the values their parents have instilled in them and gaining peer acceptance by going along with questionable behavior.

Keeping out of trouble, yet keeping friends, takes self-confidence and skill. Some children have a knack for being accepted by a group even though they don’t always go along with what the others do. “Part of the reason they succeed is because they don’t make judgments about the other kids,” Fleming comments.

Let’s say a group of girls decides to go to a drugstore to shoplift lipstick. Deborah doesn’t want to go along with the crowd, but she is afraid of losing their friendship. Instead of telling them they’ll be breaking the law, Fleming suggests she might say, “Well, I don’t want to do that. I can’t take the chance, but you guys go ahead.”

Adolescents frequently need to practice assertiveness skills when it comes to making decisions about parties and dating. Stephanie Meegan, an educational consultant in Boxford, Mass., and a nationally recognized expert in the area of prevention education, believes that parents and teachers need to help children recognize the feelings that affect the decisions they make.

In the past, she says, parents have concentrated on making the youngsters aware of the consequences of certain behavior by providing them lots of factual information. They have shown them, for example, how smoking and alcohol affect their health.

“What they tended to leave out,” she says, “was the acknowledgement that kids are going to experience inner conflicts in certain situations, and that they need very specific assertiveness skills that will allow them to get over these awkward moments.”

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The author of Peer-Proofing (an award-winning curriculum that teaches assertiveness techniques to elementary-school children), Meegan thinks parents can empower their children by encouraging them to think about tough situations before they arise.

Say, for instance, your teen-ager is invited to a party where there is going to be liquor. In this case, Meegan suggests a technique that she calls “hit and split.” Your child should say what he or she has to say and then walk away calmly, not in a huff but in a way that shows it is his or her choice to leave. He or she doesn’t have to stick around and take verbal abuse.

“There might be a part of your youngster that wants to go to the party,” she explains. “Encourage her to muster up the courage to say no, and then leave the group instead of hanging around to be talked into going.”

Another strategy Meegan finds particularly effective is the “anti-manipulation message.” She tells teen-agers that when someone tries to make them do something they don’t want to do by saying, “If you were really my friend, you’d do it,” they should try a three-part approach. First, affirm the friendship: “Yeah, you’re one of my best friends.” Second, add that you are not going to cooperate in this instance: “But it’s not fair for you to ask me to do that.” Third, offer a compromise: “If you want some time alone with me, we could go back to my house together.”

“There is always a risk involved in being overtly assertive,” Meegan maintains. “What’s important is to think of both the short- and long-term consequences. The short-term consequence is that your friend may be ticked off even though you’ve tried to be sensitive to him. The long-term result is that even if he’s upset with you, you’ve started building a reputation for not being a patsy.”

Taking the time and patience to help your children master assertiveness skills can pay off in lifelong benefits as well as in happier kids. “Children who grow up being non-assertive often feel hurt and disappointed in their relationships when they become adults,” Fleming comments. By teaching them to satisfy their own needs while remaining sensitive to those of others, you will help them build a firm foundation for a healthy, satisfying adult personal life.

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