Helping children to be more assertive

One of the first things we discover in the world is language. Babies can distinguish their mother’s voice from others’ in the womb. The ABCs are taught at a young age and children recite them with ease and pride. While we strive to help our children learn our language(s), we sometimes forget to teach them to effectively communicate. Children are constantly watching and learning from their parents and caregivers – even when it’s something they don’t want them to mimic.

We as humans communicate in four main ways – aggressively, passively, passive-aggressively, and assertively. Through my work over the years with both adults and children, I’ve noticed people think they’re being assertive, when in fact, they’re being aggressive. According to, the definition of aggression is “characterized by or tending toward unprovoked offensives, attacks, invasions, or the like; militantly forward or menacing, making an all-out effort to win or succeed; competitive, and vigorously energetic, especially in the use of initiative and forcefulness.” In a sports game, being aggressive can be helpful and bring your team to victory, but in daily interactions with other individuals, it can cause trouble.

Being passive is another way to communicate with others. defines passive as “not reacting visibly to something that might be expected to produce manifestations of an emotion or feeling.” Being passive can be OK – if we’re trying not to react with aggression. Many times, we just need to take a step back and breathe before acting. However, there are times we are passive in a situation where we wish we would have reacted in a different way. Instead of standing up, or being assertive, we don’t act out of fear of consequence.

The third way to communicate, passive-aggressive, is defined by as “denoting or pertaining to a personality type or behavior marked by the expression of negative emotions in passive, indirect ways, as through manipulation, or noncooperation.” Someone who performs a passive aggressive action may not want to be caught or may be too afraid to be direct with another person. It can also be hard for others to understand the meaning behind a passive-aggressive action.

So what do we do if we see children acting out in an aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive way? The first step is to make sure everyone involved is safe. The next step, after both you and the child are calm, is to have a conversation about what just occurred. Understanding the child’s motivation is key to helping them become a better communicator in the future.

Once you have determined what motivated the child to act the way they did, it is time to practice better ways to react in a similar situation. For example, if the child was upset because another child took their toy without asking, you can role play a comparable scenario with the child. You can teach the child assertiveness by teaching them to use eye contact and “I” statements to help the child state their feeling and concern. For example, you could say “I felt sad when you took my toy away.” It might also be helpful to act out the situation so the child can see for themselves what their actions looked like. After showing the child how they acted, you could ask them how they might feel in the other child’s shoes.

Another key aspect of teaching assertive communication is to practice and stay consistent. This is important as a child is not going to be able to model new behavior the second after learning it – it will take time. Practice several times throughout the day so they are ready when it happens again. If the action does occur again, make sure to discuss the importance of assertive communication with the child, and continue to practice. It’s also essential to have fun! Don’t make it seem like a punishment or the child will not want to practice.

Act goofy, make it fun, and make it a learning experience.

Dr. Dana Unger, PhD, LSC, NCC, is an assistant professor at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.