What is Assertiveness? Do we want our teens to be assertive?
When I was 14 I had a woodwork teacher called Mr H. He was a nice chap, married to one of our maths teachers. But he had a tendency to be just a bit sexist. In fairness this was a while ago, the class would probably be called Resistant Materials now for a start, and I guess he was surrounded by other middle-aged men who wouldn’t have realised that his attitude was patronising. But, nonetheless, he called all the boys by their surnames, and all the girls ‘darling’. And it did seem to extend beyond that into an attitude that the boys could do this subject but we girls might not be any good at it. Anyway at some point I decided that I wouldn’t stand for this anymore. So when he asked “Have you finished that project darling?” I loudly replied “Yes sweetheart!"
That was arguably rude of me. I intended to make Mr H feel uncomfortable. He certainly didn’t call me darling again! And there were other more polite ways I could have made that point. But I don’t regret doing it. I happen to think it made my point quite emphatically and I’m glad I did take a stand. I could have chosen to do it in a far more aggressive way, and may have got myself into trouble doing so. Was what I did big and clever? I’m not sure, but it was definitely assertive!
There are always headlines about 'tearaway teens' and young people being antisocial and unpleasant. In reality, those of us who live or work with teenagers see that most of them just want to have some friends and be successful. What is the best recipe for success? Here’s one option: “do what you are told and try to make other people happy”. At first glance that might appear sensible – it will keep you out of trouble with your teachers and your classmates. It is definitely an approach that I see a lot of young people trying to take. And it is easy to see how adults around them can encourage this approach. We praise the polite quiet kids. We criticise and punish law breakers. We find it easier if our kids don’t make a fuss. But is this what we really want for our teens?
Trying to please
It doesn’t take much to see that there are potential problems with this approach. Where is the space for their own opinions, needs and values? It is easy to get torn between trying to please different people who want different things at the same time – if one of your friends wants to go ice-skating and one wants to go to the cinema, who do you prioritise to make happy? If your teachers want you to get your homework in on time and mum and dad want you to walk the dog and tidy your bedroom, whose rules do you follow? Trying to please everyone all of the time is exhausting and you are ultimately doomed to failure.
What do we want for our teens?
We want young people who can get on with their friends and we all hope our children won’t get into serious trouble. No-one wants to encourage children or young people to hurt others, to bully them or to be demanding. Whatever age your school-going child is, there are two main fears for most parents: 1) their child getting bullied and 2) the headteacher phoning up to say their child has done something awful. The line we need to teach our children to tread to avoid both of these situations is not aggression, or people pleasing, it is assertiveness. This is a tricky concept for a lot of us adults too. I am aware in myself that when I feel under pressure I am more likely to lean towards pleasing others than asserting myself. I am frightened of aggression and I don’t want anyone to see me as aggressive. I remember being told as a teenager and a young woman a couple on of occasions that I came across as aggressive in an argument, and it always made me feel ashamed. But looking back, I don’t think I was being aggressive, and I think there is a danger that young people, or those in less powerful positions, can be labelled as ‘aggressive’ so that their voices can be dismissed. Was that aggression towards Mr H? I can’t imagine he felt threatened by me.
We need to teach young people to have assertiveness skills, to be able to stand up for their own beliefs and needs without squashing other people. They need to believe in their right to do so as well as recognise the right of others around them to also assert their needs.
Assertiveness is an attitude of mind, but there are outward signs that we can learn in order to show that to other people. Body language and vocal skills are a helpful place to start.
How to be More Assertive
Try this exercise together:
Think of characters on TV or in films. Try to think of people who are a) not very good at standing up for what they want or who get pushed around, b) people who are aggressive or put people off by being overpowering, and c) those who get it right. Which characters can you think of who can stand up for what they want without upsetting everyone else?
I know I overuse Harry Potter as an example, but I think Neville Longbottom is a great illustrator of this. Matthew Lewis played him in the films, and I think he did a great job of showing physically the difference between Neville feeling oppressed or squashed, and Neville asserting himself. Neville never looks aggressive, even when brandishing a wand! I realise most of us don’t have to cope with dark magic threatening to end the world, but young people can be facing serious, real-world challenges, and the outward tricks that will help them get taken seriously are exactly the same.
The best way to do this is to practice with each other and with a mirror, or take pictures of each other on your phone.
Exercise to build Assertiveness Skills
First, try making yourself, purely with your body and your face, look like you think your own opinions don’t matter. What do you find yourself doing? Notice everything, from your body position to where your head is, what might you do with your hands, are you looking at people, what expression is on your face?
Now, without making contact with each other in any way, try looking aggressive. Intimidate the other person just with your body language. Notice how close you might stand to them. What expression do you have on your face? Where are your arms? They may be crossed and make you look closed off and defensive, or they may have clenched fists and be in front of you.
Finally, be calm, confident and stand your ground. Be assertive in your body. An assertive person will stand up tall but will give people space. They will not either cower away or try to loom over another person. Having an open body posture, relaxing your shoulders down, holding your head straight and above all smiling really help! Practice making eye contact, whilst smiling or looking neutral, that is not threatening or pleading, but is assertive. Look someone in the face, but you don’t need to hold their gaze for a long time. Look towards them if this feels more comfortable, rather than staring straight at them. Making eye contact is helpful when you want to be taken seriously but fixing someone with a stare and not breaking eye contact isn’t. Make eye contact and then allow your eyes to slide around their face, look at their forehead, or cheek, or into their hairline, before returning to their eyes, so that you do not feel forced to look away completely, but also avoid getting stuck in a power struggle of who can stare the hardest, which can certainly feel aggressive or challenging to the other person.
For more tricks, tips and advice check out these websites:
For anyone who has been bullied and wants to learn more visit www.kidscape.org.uk. They also offer free one day workshops where you get to learn assertiveness skills, alongside other great techniques.
We will be doing a podcast on this topic shortly, so if you have any ideas, suggestions or questions you would like us to cover, please get in touch at email@example.com
Dr Helen Care