The Problem-Solving Parent - Assertiveness or Aggressiveness: Teach You Child the Difference
By Eleanor Reynolds Children and Families Expert

Does this sound familiar? Billy and Davey want the same toy. Billy threatens, “If you don’t share, you can’t come to my house.” Jill and Kaela both want to be the mother when they play house. “If you don’t let me be the mother, I won’t be your friend!” yells Kaela.  

Young children learn about and experiment with power to find out how far they can go and what it takes to get what they want. Children can only learn how to be social beings through trial and error with other children. As parents, we might find this embarrassing; we want our children to share, to be polite, and to act well behaved. We don’t want our children to be shy, soft-spoken, or the victims of a bully. Unfortunately, parents often stress the need to be polite and share more than the need to protect one’s rights. We fail to teach our children the difference between assertiveness, which is sticking up for yourself, and aggressiveness, which is imposing your will on someone else.           

At a recent circle time, I asked a group of children what they would do if one of their friends asked them to give up a toy before inviting them to play. All but one child said they would give up the toy. The threat of losing a friend was more frightening than losing a toy. This demonstrates that children are confused and need help to become assertive individuals. But is it possible to teach children to be kind and considerate, yet stand up for themselves in the face of threats, coercion, and intimidation? Yes it is, and here’s how.           

Parents can help their children become assertive by suggesting some simple statements to use whenever they feel threatened. Encourage your child to make assertive statements in “a big voice” without yelling, screaming, whining, or pleading. Role-play with your child by playing the role of the aggressive, threatening child, and by helping her decide under what circumstances each of the following statements is appropriate.

1. Don’t talk to me that way!

2. I can play wherever (or with whatever) I choose to!

3. I don’t play with mean people!

4. I’m going to leave and tell the teacher (if someone is going to harm you). 

Most children who are mildly aggressive will back off if another child is truly assertive. Using the above statements may be enough to defuse a fight if it’s only a power struggle for a toy or competition for attention. On the other hand, the true bully, that is, a child who primarily wants to hurt other children, may need professional help from a family therapist. If a bully harasses your child, do not hesitate to meet with the head teacher or director of your child’s program. Demand better supervision in addition to appropriate school intervention with the bully and his family.           

Another aspect of being assertive is knowing how to use negotiation to meet needs. This is the positive way to use power and it should be taught along with assertiveness. Most situations do not require the four above statements – they can be solved through negotiation. When your child is confronted by a dispute over a toy, teach her to come up with several ideas that can solve the problem. Some ideas might include: “We can play with it together” (that’s what sharing really means); “We can take turns” (then decide who goes first and for how long); or “One of us could get another toy that’s like this one” (they look for another toy together). Any solution should be agreeable to both children. If not, they keep negotiating until they can agree.           

Finally, children must be taught how to be kind to their friends. We all teach our children to say “Please and thank you,” but what can you say if a friend asks, “Do you like my new shoes?” and you really don’t? What do you say if someone scribbles and asks, “Do you like my drawing?” or wants to play with you and you don’t want to play with him? These are questions that require complex answers, but preschoolers can be taught to say, “Those shoes look good on you;” “I like the green color in your drawing;” and “I’m playing with Charlie now, but I’ll play with you in ten minutes.”


Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers. For more information, visit her website at Reynolds is also the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach.