Teaching Kids Assertive Communication Skills

By Janet Mulroney Clark
Children should learn assertive communication skills so they can advocate for themselves effectively.
Children should learn assertive communication skills so they can advocate for themselves effectively.

Children who are assertive know how to ask for what they need, tell people how they feel and stand up for themselves. They can stop a bully in his tracks or tell an adult if a bully or other abusive person is hurting them and refuses to stop. Teaching your children assertive communication skills is one way of protecting them and giving them a tool they can use to build healthy relationships now and in the future.

Too Hot, Too Cold, Just Right

Aggression, passivity and assertiveness are like the three bowls of porridge in "Goldilocks and The Three Bears" -- one is too hot, one is too cold and one is just right. Aggressive communication comes off as hostile and angry, while passive communication is what people use when they withdraw and don't speak out, causing their feelings come out in unexpected ways or sometimes causing them to sink into depression. Assertive communication is used when people state their feelings, wants and needs in a calm, confident manner.

Opportunity Knocks

Day-to-day situations offer the opportunity to teach children how to communicate assertively. If your child comes home from school upset because she got a low grade on a project she thought she had done a good job on, you can tell her to explain to her teacher how she feels and to ask specifically what the reasons were for the low grade and also to ask how she could correct the problem. Parents who see their child being left out of a game or being bossed around by another child often want to ride in on a white horse and rescue her, but she will learn more if you can coach her on what to say, suggesting she tells the other person how she feels and offers a solution.

Stand Up, Speak Out

Alice Sterling Honig, Professor of child development at Syracuse University, writes on Scholastic that parents should work with their children on accepting their feelings, using feeling words and "I statements" and role playing. Your child need to know it's OK to be angry when someone takes her belongings or hurts her. She needs to have the vocabulary to accurately state her feelings. Honig recommends parents role play with their children, using situations such as two children playing and one snatches a toy from the other one. Allow the child to play both parts; when she is the victim, show her how to demonstrate assertiveness by telling the other child how she feels, finding a different playmate or suggesting another game.

Step by Step

Barbara Kenney Bickford, Sutherland Miller, and Mary Jane Rotheram-Borus of the University of California, Los Angeles, created a training program for children in third to sixth grade called ACT, which stands for Assertive Communication Training. They recommend certain procedures for teaching children to be assertive. Parents should emphasize and reward strengths, ignoring undesired behavior when possible. Beginning steps should be rewarded, and parents should look for an improvement in skills and be quick to recognize and reward them. Raise expectations by gradually reducing how frequently you reward or praise the positive behavior. Model assertive communication, and, when feasible, explain it step by step. Finally, parents should encourage independent thinking by asking their child how she felt in situations where she practiced her assertive communication skills. While the program was created for the classroom, it's a useful tool for parents to use with children as well.

About the Author

Janet Clark has written professionally since 2001. She writes about education, careers, culture, parenting, gardening and social justice issues. Clark graduated from Buena Vista University with a degree in education. She has written two novels, "Blind Faith" and "Under the Influence." Clark has received several awards from the Iowa Press Women for her work.