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Tweens and Teens


Assertiveness and Teens


Encouraging an I CAN Confidence



September 01, 2009
It's fairly clear when children are ready to feed themselves, dress themselves, or bathe themselves. But what about speaking for themselves?

At some point during the young teen years, a child becomes able to ask her own questions, speak her mind and stand up for herself in various situations outside the home. When she was six and didn't know when and where the Girl Scout picnic was being held, you got on the phone and figured it out. When she was 8 and came home with a poor grade on a test, you consulted with the teacher. But as she matures, these are the types of tasks that she can begin to do for herself.

Advocating for themselves in their expanding world empowers young teens to care for themselves both physically and emotionally, which builds their self-esteem and prepares them for independence. Developing this skill is a healthy component of maturing, but learning to use it effectively can take some practice on their part and coaching on yours.

As with other developmental changes, readiness for self-advocacy will vary by individual. Your child may show an ability to speak for himself as early as age 9, or may not achieve this confidence until he is well into his teens.

Take your cues from him; when he begins to speak out naturally, encourage him. It is normal for a child to feel shy about approaching an adult. Help him to understand that he has a legitimate right to his thoughts, feelings and opinions, even if they are different from someone else's—especially an adult's. Explain the difference between being passive (not speaking up for yourself,) aggressive (not caring if you hurt others when you act on your opinions,) and assertive (standing up for yourself without hurting others.)

You can use the "I CAN" guidelines to help children gain confidence, whether it's a matter of calling the piano teacher to reschedule a lesson, or approaching the basketball coach about their amount of playing time. Explain these steps to your child and help her apply them to her own situations.

I: Identify the problem. Be specific and clear. "Miss McDougal? I need to reschedule my piano lesson." Or, "Coach Johnson, I would like to have more playing time in our basketball tournament."

C: Communicate facts and feelings objectively. "My piano lesson is usually at 6 o'clock on Friday night, but I have been invited to Jenny's slumber party, which starts at 5:30. I really want to go to the party." Or, "For the whole basketball season, I have only been allowed to play during the last ten minutes of each game. I didn't play well at the beginning of the year, but in the last three games I've scored 8 points, and that shows improvement. I feel disappointed that I'm not playing more."

A: Ask for what you would like. "Could I change my lesson to 4 o'clock on Friday instead?" Or, "Could you put me in at the beginning of the game next week?"

N: Negotiate if necessary. "If 4 o'clock is taken, I could come at 5 o'clock and get to the party a little late." Or, "OK, if I can't start, how about if I come to an extra practice and then go in after half time?"

Help your child to understand that, like any new skill, repetition will lead to improvement and increased confidence. Encourage him to practice being assertive with family members or other adults with whom he already feels comfortable. Negotiating with you about chores or curfew can give him the confidence to ask for a raise in his lawn-mowing job. Asking the familiar next-door neighbor about gardening may make it easier for the child to raise his hand in class when he is confused.

Let your child rehearse assertive communication through role-playing. If she needs to ask the school bus driver about her lost book, let her practice her "lines" on you. Hearing her own words out loud will help her make choices about exactly what she needs to say. Taking the role of the bus driver, you can supply possible responses to further the conversation. If it helps, have her write down what she plans to say, then read it. Let her practice as many times as she needs to until she feels comfortable.

If your child is still hesitant about speaking up for himself, help him make a gradual transition. You can wait outside the classroom while he talks to his teacher, letting him know that you can come in if he needs you. Or you can stay in the car within his view while he approaches the park district counselor.

Keep in mind that young teens can waver between high and low confidence in speaking up for themselves, depending upon the situation, the people involved, and even how they feel when they get up in the morning. Encourage them to speak for themselves, but don't push them past their limits.

Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville, Illinois, and the stepmother of two, ages 25 and 29. She can be reached at 847-782-1722.

Lisa M. Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville, Illinois, and the stepmother of two, ages 20 and 24.
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