Fostering Friendship Skills in Early Childhood (Part 2): Assertive Communication

Last month we began this series on strategies for supporting preschoolers in developing friendship skills. These important skills help set the stage for success and happiness in school, in important personal relationships, and eventually on the job. We wrote last about concrete ways to help kids learn to wait, share and turn take. In this month’s installment, we’ll talk about how to help preschoolers develop the art of assertive communication. The material presented in this article and the previous one can be found in a wonderful book entitled, Beyond Behavior Management by Jenna Blimes.

Depending on their personalities and experiences, children develop varying abilities to express their feelings, needs and wants. We can imagine these abilities along a continuum from passivity to aggressiveness in communicating with others. On this type of scale, the ideal communication style lies on the midpoint between the two extremes, that is, not too passive and not too aggressive. We call this assertive communication. It involves children learning to directly, honestly, and respectfully express themselves while ALSO learning to listen to others and thoughtfully and flexibly consider another’s point of view. Assertive communication is not always easy to learn but it is a central skill used in forming and maintaining close friendships over your child’s lifetime.

Assertiveness is essential to being a good friend because it indicates the child is able to balance the needs of self with the needs of others. Children who use a passive approach forfeit the needs of self, and are often bullied or exploited by more aggressive children, leading to diminished confidence and a lessened sense of agency. On the other hand, children who use an aggressive approach are seen as selfish and self-centered by peers and sometimes adults. It is usually not long before an aggressive child internalizes others’ negative thoughts and feelings about him and begins to feel this way about himself, increasing his anger, alienation, and negative behaviors.

Parents and other caregivers can help children on both ends of the continuum to express their needs clearly. Children can be helped to learn to use limit-setting language, and as they become better at this skill, to use more complicated forms of language that describe their needs and intentions to others.

Teaching clear, limit-setting language:

While it is tempting for adults to reach in and save the passive child who gets walked over, this rescuing behavior misses a teachable moment to support the child in asserting his feelings and needs.

Here are some things caregivers can do for children on the passive end of the communication continuum:

  • A caring adult can ask questions to get children started, such as, “Lisa, did you like it when Ella took the red paint from you? It didn’t look like you did. You can tell her, ‘I don’t like it when you grab.”
  • Adults can ask children if they need help asserting themselves, such as, “Lisa, do you need help getting the doll you were playing with back?”
  • Adults can help children practice a strong voice and strong body while they tell other children how they feel with role-playing and pretend. So that might look like: “OK, Lisa, let’s pretend that your friend just took the doll you were playing with right out of your hands. What could you say? Let’s practice.”
  • Adults can also provide physical support to children by kneeling down next to them while calling over the other child and cuing the passive child to state his concerns.

So what can we do to help children on the aggressive side of the continuum? (Here “aggression” is not solely referring to hitting and the like, but also impulsive behaviors like grabbing a toy before stopping to think to use words to get what one wants):

With children who tend to use aggressive communication styles:

  • Caregivers can begin by teaching and helping children to slow down and pause before using physical actions to express themselves. An adult might observe the sequence of actions taken by a child, and narrate them back in as neutral a way as possible, such as “I just saw you get so excited about playing in the sandbox that you ran right in, took the shovel and pail, and started to dig. The problem was that Tommy was already playing with those toys and was right where you decided to play. What could you do a little differently next time you want to play in the sand?”
  • Parents can help children learn to put their needs and desires into words. Simple statements like, “I would like this toy,” or “I want to play” can go a long way towards supporting the development of play and communication skills that help build stronger friendships.
  • Building on the first suggestion, adults can translate what they believe is the intention or goal of a child’s actions to other children with the aggressive child present to improve the communication between children, such as, “Ella, it seemed like you wanted to play in the sandbox so much that you ran right over Tommy who was already playing there, and I think that he got stepped on and hurt. What do you think we should do now?”

Modeling Assertive Communication:

Along side of explicitly teaching limit setting language to foster assertive communication, comes modeling the language and behavior we want to teach children.

When children have difficulties, these can be prime opportunities for caregivers to model assertive language and behavior in response. Instead of using commands, reprimands or punishment, modeling assertive language and behavior shows children that our words and choices are powerful tools, and that goes for adults as well as children.

A wonderful teachable moment for children is to model walking away from a negative situation as an assertive choice; something the children can do when they are in a bad situation that they can choose to do with a sense of strength and control.

Here is an example from every day life: It’s a particularly difficult day, and Ella is frustrated with her siblings for not playing her way, frustrated with her mom for not letting her watch more TV, and frustrated it’s raining outside and she can’t go the pool. In a moment of reactivity, Ella tells her mother, “You are the worst Mommy ever!”

So, the “worst Mommy ever” decides to model for Ella and her other children a way to assertively respond without adding gas to the fire of Ella’s irritability. She says, “Ella, I don’t like those words. Can we talk about what you are feeling frustrated about?” When Ella simply repeats the insult, her mother calmly responds, “Those are hurtful words and I am going to walk away right now.” In doing this, rather than modeling reacting emotionally or retaliation, Ella’s mother has modeled stating how she felt, what she didn’t like, and an assertive constructive action that she chose to take to calm things down. This choice served to de-escalate the conflict between Ella and her mother and gave Ella and her siblings a powerful lesson on how they can respond to peers when they are in a similar situation.

All children are learning to communicate their needs and wants, and children may alternate being on both ends of the continuum of passive to aggressive communication depending on the situation. Daily life is full of interactions where conflicting needs must be understood and navigated, between children and peers, and between children and their parents and caregivers. Fortunately, all of these moments provide opportunities to guide children towards assertive communication and to work towards modeling clear, limit setting language ourselves.