Assertiveness For Children
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

By: Dr. Steven T. Griggs, Ph.D.

In my practice as an outpatient child psychologist, I often hear the question, "Can children be assertive?" The answer is, for most very young children, they already are. Kids will tell you what they want, usually immediately and often with considerable noise if they do not get it.

Aside from congenitally shy children and a few other diagnostic groups, most kids speak their minds one way or another, often with their bodies. Really young ones do not have the words to tell us their feelings, but they have little torsos that contort or jump up and down, and they have little mouths to scream bloody murder when they are frustrated.

Most parents are familiar with the "Terrible Two's, which is when much of this first comes to a head. This is just the average age for oppositional or rebellious behavior. It actually starts when a child reaches one and one-half years. It can go on and on, sometimes until a child reaches age four. During these times, children are building their vocabularies. Usually their  ocabularies reflect the things in their space--table, lamp, toy, food, TV, bed. A little later, children start using words to reflect a greater range of interests and cognitive ability. "I'm hungry but I don't want broccoli. Can I stay up past bedtime? My brother took my shoes so I punched him." Also about the same time, probably around late pre-school or early kindergarten, children start using words that show they can read or add numbers or know their colors, regardless of the objects.

As a child psychologist, I have noted that children do not usually have a vocabulary of their feelings. They do not use words like "angry" or "hurt." They will often act angry, hurt or afraid, but will usually not say the word until the parent ask, "Are you angry, hurt or afraid?" Then, the child will usually say yes, but again, not use the word. One of the things I try to do in my office is teach kids a vocabulary of their feelings. On my office door is one of those large colored posters of sixteen faces, each depicting an emotion. Right under each face is the word for that feeling. Kids usually cannot tell me what the word is for their feelings, but they can instantly point to the correct face. Then, I can show them and tell them the word that describes how they feel. Surprisingly, it only takes once or twice for a child to put the face together with the correct word.

I once had a two year old that could not sit still. He was not ADHD and did not have any learning disabilities. He was just anxious. I told him that he was anxious and of course, he did not have a clue what I meant. Then I put it into his language; meaning, I gave a very concrete example. I said to the little boy, "Being anxious is when you have butterflies in your tummy." His eyes got very big. He said, "Do I have butterflies in my tummy?" I said, "No, but when you are anxious Your tummy feels like it, just like it feels right now. It makes you want to not sit still." He got it right away. The next week, this little boy came running down the hallway, practically yelling, "Dr. Steve, Dr. Steve, I'm anxious." His mother almost fainted, but it shows us that children are capable of quickly understanding a lot about their feelings at a very young age.

The reason this is important is because assertiveness has two major components. The first is more intellectual, or say cognitive. We have to express some idea, preferably with words. But, the second aspect is feeling. Adults do not express this very well either, which is probably why kids are not taught it. To be assertive, one has to communicate at the content level (the most superficial, issue based, usually intellectual level) plus let the listener know something about the emotion underneath. Assertiveness doubles in effectiveness when we add a verbal description of our feeling/emotion as we are describing what we think or want. Can kids do this? Absolutely.

I have written an ebook about the five steps of assertiveness that goes into the basics and a lot more with considerable depth. But guess what? All of the information can be translated to our kids we just speak their language.

Author : Dr. Steven T. Griggs Ph.D
Dr. Steven T. Griggs practices in Escondido, CA. You can learn more about Dr. Griggs here on the Directory.