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Sept. 14, 2022

Why teaching teens assertiveness makes a difference to everyone.

Why teaching teens assertiveness makes a difference to everyone.

This week my daughter called to say that someone had taken her phone charger and written their name on it. She could see where her own name had been rubbed out underneath the fresh ink. She was fuming. Her best friend – affronted by the cheek of it - confronted the girl, but the claim was denied.

FIRST REACTION: I was hugely impressed that the other girl had stepped in to help a friend.

My daughter now asked me for advice. She was considering simply taking it back.

SECOND REACTION: I argued that it was the wrong thing to do, but I didn’t have much to say beyond either appealing to someone in authority or chalking it up to experience and changing the environment to make it harder for ‘thieves’ to operate ie keeping her charger hidden from others and naming all her belongings with a UV light pen.

FIRST REFLECTION: I then sat and thought about my advice. It was the old-fashioned good girl’s approach of keeping quiet and managing things in the background.

THIRD REACTION: I called her back and told her she should confront the girl herself and tell her that you both know what she did, that her behaviour isn’t simply damaging to one person, but damaging to the entire community because she’s making everyone feel their possessions are unsafe. Then ask that she give it back.

SECOND REFLECTION: When I dished out this advice I didn’t tell her that I would never have been that brave when I was her age. I grew up in a culture where strong women weren’t encouraged. ‘Cat fights’ were considered unbecoming, and in my family nobody talked about my father’s drinking, our poverty, or admitted there was anything wrong with the way he spoke to us and our mother. It would surprise many to know that I have been battling to be assertive ever since.

THIRD REFLECTION: This is how we break the cycle. Realising that our own responses are conditioned wrongly and coming up with ideas about how things might be done differently.

OUTCOME: She confronted the girl in front of her friends. The girl denied it, but two things happened. My daughter felt empowered to at least speak out against an unjust situation, and the following day the girl ‘found her own charger’ and returned the taken one to my daughter, along with a groveling apology.

FOURTH REFLECTION: Because my daughter tried, and succeeded, in asserting herself, she has taught me something valuable about being assertive. Here’s where being a parent can really pay back.

Just after this incident I read an Instagram story written by Dr Elizabeth Frederick - who provides counselling at Evolve Counselling, in Phoenix, Arizona – which really resonated with me.

‘If you were raised in an environment where you didn’t have a voice, your needs/wants/boundaries, were not actively acknowledged…. Talking about emotions wasn’t common, the result was likely:

  • Not understanding the importance of talking about our feelings.
  • Not believing that our feelings matter or are significant.
  • Feeling afraid to ask for what we need.
  • Feeling bad for saying when we don’t like something.’

Of course, this translates into some really important parenting advice too. Her illustration of the difference between passive-aggressive behaviour and assertion is very useful for looking at our own reactions, and identifying those of others.

  • Dropping hints is passive-aggressive, rather than being specific when making a request.
  • Acting upset when someone doesn’t guess what you need, against being assertive and openly stating that you don’t like something.
  • Shutting down or getting reactive but not sharing why, against being assertive and articulating when and why you’re upset.
  • Being overly nice to make a point is passive-aggressive, instead of demonstrating empathy without enabling undesired behaviour.

‘Being assertive is NOT about being demanding, controlling, or aggressive. Being assertive is about being open, honest and respectful in the communication of what we need from others.’

It’s a skill that we as parents have to practise and help our teenagers to learn.

The good news is that it works. Since investing time and effort in talking with my youngest daughter, listening to her viewpoint, and acknowledging her experiences, I’ve noticed that she’s gone from being moody, ‘lazy’, and arguing back, to being fully engaged, calling me to chat, and being an all-round decent human being who is making huge strides at school and in her own life. She’s not perfect but show me who is.

This is why we all benefit when we take that leap of faith and be honest with our teens, connect emotionally with them, and recognise their needs.