My daughter is lost in play with a friend, and I watch as her eyes suddenly fix on the floor beneath her. The conversation is quiet and I can’t quite make out the words between them, but I can sense from her posture that she doesn’t want to speak up. The path of least resistance tends to be her favorite path, even if it means pushing her own ideas and thoughts aside to fulfill the needs of those around her. I can relate. She shrugs, puts down her doll and moves on to something else.
Sometimes we see snippets of our own childhood played out in our children’s lives and it feels fun and exciting, but other times it feels like a punch to the gut. In those moments, we want to reach out and change the course of history before it’s too late for our children, even when we know that we shouldn’t. Parenting is tricky business, as it turns out, and to fix each problem for our children is deny them opportunity for growth. We have to strike a careful balance between guiding and fixing. We have to show them they way without taking over.
My husband and I were both described as “quiet” children. We were introverted before it was cool to be introverted. We had rich internal worlds and our imaginations kept us busy for hours on end. We both recall days of play that felt endless with possibility. We both retreated to our bedrooms when we needed time away from the circus. We both found ways to channel our creativity and reset our souls.
But we were both very, very quiet, and we lived this way for many years before anyone told us to go ahead and speak up. Assertiveness was something that didn’t come naturally to either of us, and it certainly wasn’t taught in the classroom back in the 1980s. We had to find our voices on our own. I was 22 years old before I found the confidence to speak up without worrying about how others might react, and even then it was a work in progress.
Each time I watch one of my children struggle to find the words or confidence to voice their feelings, I experience that painful punch to the gut. I know that lump-in-the-throat feeling that causes kids to stand silent when they want to speak, and the aching worry about a potential argument that forces kids to agree when every fiber of their being wants to disagree.
I know what it’s like to take one for the team over and over again just to keep the peace. If I could go back in time and make one change to impact my childhood for the better, I would teach my childhood self to assert her needs, feelings and beliefs with confidence. To that end, we spend a fair amount of time working on assertiveness skills around here.
My children are both fairly introverted, but in different ways and to different degrees. My son, who only spoke to people he trusted for a solid five years, takes my mom therapist advice to heart and recently learned the power of speaking up. No longer afraid of a disagreement, he voices his concerns the moment they arise and in a loud (if confident) voice. The he retreats to his room and reads a book while he works through his emotions. When he’s calm, we practice the art of assertive communication. We talk about things like eye contact, facial expressions (we even practice in a mirror!), body posture, voice tone and listening skills. We roleplay kind ways to assert our needs while taking the feelings of others into consideration.
My daughter, on the other hand, is a different kind of introvert. An internalizer by nature, she tends to hold her thoughts and feelings in for hours at a time. She waits for just the moment to share her concerns about any given topic. She is likely to say yes for fear of disagreement, and she tends to seek one-on-one time with me instead of dealing with the politics of group play. She’s a pleaser who knows that sometimes she needs to protect herself by getting up and walking away. But she does need to learn how to speak up.
At the beginning of each school year, I help the kids craft an assertiveness bill of rights. We talk about having the right to say no, the right to an opinion, the right to disagree, the right to feel angry or sad and any other rights they deem necessary. In crafting the bill, we discuss what it means to be assertive and what we can do to be both assertive and empathic at the same time. It’s a project they both enjoy and a great way to send them off to school, but we don’t stop there.
My kids will tell you that I can make almost any game into a “feelings” game, and they’re probably right. I’ve been known to put a therapeutic spin on everything from “Simon Says” to “Bingo,” but my favorite game to alter is “Jenga.” In our house, we work together to keep the tower standing as long as possible and add fun questions to the blocks to incorporate roleplay. I ask the kids to tell me about situations at school or out in the community when it feels hard to speak up, and we write questions on the blocks that relate to those events. “What would you do if one friend teased another?” for example, cues the child to act out ways to stand up for a friend.
They say that teachable moments are everywhere, but sometimes life gets busy and those moments can be difficult to grasp. I say slow down, enjoy the small moments and practice the skills that will help kids live happy lives as they grow. For us, that begins with learning to speak our minds.
Katie Hurley, LCSW, is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and the author of “The Happy Kid Handbook”. Katie practices psychotherapy in the South Bay area of Los Angeles and is a freelance writer for many online parenting publications. Katie writes the parenting blog, Practical Parenting. Katie splits her time between Los Angeles and the Connecticut coast with her rock and roll husband and their two happy children.