Teaching toddlers to be assertive and stand up for themselves

In the kid’s section of a restaurant, I see a three-year-old girl go up to her father, crying “Daddy!!! The older kids hit us and won’t let us go down the slide!” Without flinching, her dad replies: “Why don’t you go play in the little house instead?”

Back at the playground, two boys, aged seven or eight, are running around being bossy. They pick on the smaller kids, act tough, and decide who goes down the slide and who doesn’t. One of them even spits on a four-year-old girl, laughing hysterically. Her father gives the two bullies a piece of his mind and leaves with his daughter.

Can you spot the problem in these scenarios?

In both cases, a child was being intimidated.

But that’s not the complete answer we’re looking for. The correct response is: neither parent encouraged standing up to the aggressor.

The first father told his daughter to simply let it go and the second one showed that all a child needs is an adult to take care of the situation. When these children’s parents aren’t around, though, they’ll be left high and dry in the midst of conflict. Both of these situations would’ve been great opportunities to teach assertiveness.

Assertiveness is essential in every child’s present and future relationships. Their capacity to express thoughts and opinions remains one of the most important aspects of strong social skills—ones that will allow them to better handle any difficult situation, whether at school or, someday, at work.

In general, confident people tend to have more friends, find better jobs and are more respected by the people around them.

Examples of assertive behavior

  • Giving your opinion, even if it goes against the majority, without fear of ridicule.

  • Approaching others with suggestions for games or activities without fear of rejection.

  • Not being bossy, but not settling to be a follower.

  • Standing up for your beliefs and not being easily influenced by others.

  • Voicing what bothers you, without sounding like you’re always complaining.

  • Taking care of others and respecting them, but also accepting that not everyone will like you for who you are.

  • Speaking up when someone attacks you, without using violence or insults.



How can I teach my child healthy assertion?
  • Be a good role model, encouraging respect and non-violence at every turn.
  • Don’t act like a referee when children have arguments, and resist the temptation to defend one child over the other. If Max complains that Nina stole his toy, help him figure out how to get it back and explain to her how her actions made him feel, rather than intervening yourself. Lend a hand if need be, but always let children stand up for themselves solo. Your house is a wonderful lab for this kind of experimentation.
  • Encourage your child to express his or her emotions, positive or negative. When necessary, put a name to the emotion that your child is experiencing. (e.g. “You must be proud!”, “You seem disappointed!”)
  • Regularly ask your child for his or her opinion on various subjects and make sure they know that their opinions are always important and valued. Take a genuine interest in his or her point of view; don’t attempt to influence said opinion.
  • In a car or during your free time, play “What would you do if…?” and role-play with your child to find the right way to react.

Remember, though, that finding the right balance between kindness and assertiveness doesn’t happen overnight. In the next few years, many situations will inevitably arise that allow your children to explore the finer details of setting limits, while also remaining respectful. I encourage you to begin teaching them to be better equipped with self-assurance and confidence now, in order to handle whatever life throws at them later.

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