It may be surprising that empathy and assertiveness are skills that go hand-in-hand. It could be that we think of assertive behaviours in negative terms - bringing to mind qualities such as pushiness or aggression; yet building assertiveness develops the prefrontal cortex executive function skills that activate self-reflection and responsive action. Assertiveness is very different to aggression - assertiveness skills include confidence, communication and respect for ourselves and others. As well as feeling empowered to speak up for themselves, people who are assertive also have the courage to stand up for others when help is needed. Assertiveness gives children the ability to reflect on and process their own experiences and can "empower them to deal with distressing situations such as bullying, inappropriate and upsetting behaviors directed at them or classmates, overwhelming instructions, or confusion about lessons.” (Willis, 2020).
Empathetic communication means listening as well as speaking, acknowledging the other person’s perspective and demonstrating with your responses that you care about their feelings. Demonstrating how empathy and assertiveness go together is important for children because it allows them to be respectful towards both themselves and others.
Children exhibiting assertive communication styles are able to stand up to hate and can advocate for themselves and others. In fact, studies have long shown that assertiveness is vital to children’s self-esteem and has strong links to self-determination. So how can we foster empathic assertiveness in children and empower them to act with honesty and authenticity? Here are some ideas for building assertiveness:
Model and practice ‘I’ messages - I messages work because they remove the judgment from a conversation. If we focus on how someone made us feel, rather than what they did, it feels less confrontational and critical. This is a positive communication skill to foster in children as it helps them get their point across without making their listener feel attacked or defensive. Practice forming assertive sentences that use ‘I’ messages such as:
“I feel (insert feeling) when you (insert behaviour).
I would like you to (insert request).”
Notice how the request is framed as a statement rather than a question. Encourage children to model ‘I’ message sentences for situations they have experienced, for example a disagreement with a friend.
Constructive feedback - constructively praising assertive qualities can be powerful! Say things such as “I like how you spoke up!” or “I'm impressed with how respectful you were in that disagreement”. Let children know you are proud of them when they stand up for themselves or others, or when they find solutions that work for everyone. As with all praise, this works best in the moment, when you can pinpoint for your child exactly what they were doing well.
Defining boundaries - support kids when they say no or show negotiation skills. It is also important to let children experience how adults say and stick to ‘no’ - children look to the adults in their lives for guidance on how to act and behave. With older kids, you can even discuss the times when assertiveness has been difficult for you and how you overcame it through practice. Similarly, it is good for children to see adults praising (and even rewarding) themselves when modelling confidence - this can be as simple as saying out loud ‘I’m proud of how I handled that situation’.
Listen to children’s real-life problems and brainstorm and role-play solutions together - Have children play a character ‘type’ (you could use the communication types for kids guide) to expand their perspectives, empathy and awareness of situations where assertiveness is valuable, such as bullying, asking to play, or needing help. Include situations that foster assertive action, such as how and who to ask for help. Some possible scenarios to try could be:
- Your friend needs help with their homework assignment but you were away from school that day. How can you help them get the information they need to do the work?
- A classmate has forgotten their pencil and wants to borrow yours, but it’s the only one you have and you need to do your work too. How can you solve this dilemma?
- You hear a classmate being unkind to another child. How can you help?