Teens & Assertiveness
In my work with teens, a recurring theme that I’ve noticed is the importance of the teens finding their voices and being able to communicate their feelings, thoughts, and needs effectively. As parents, we want the best for our children and our hearts ache when our kids struggle. But, we do them a great disservice if we swoop in and solve all of their problems for them. They will learn that they don’t have a voice and cannot advocate for themselves. Now, this is not to say that parents should be uninvolved and completely “hands off.” If we, the parents, take one of these more extreme approaches, our children may learn to be passive or aggressive. The goal is for our kids to learn to appropriately advocate for themselves, which means learning to be assertive, the balance between being passive and aggressive.
So why is learning to be assertive and advocate for themselves particularly poignant for teens? During adolescence, it’s developmentally appropriate for teens to become more independent and explore their values, goals, and roles. By encouraging our kids to find their voice, identify their needs, explore their values, while giving them enough space and also offering support and setting boundaries, we can help them to navigate this life stage that can be full of excitement, growth, and it’s fair share of challenges.
In my work with teens, one area that commonly presents challenges and therefore opportunities to practice advocating for themselves is school: In math, the teacher moves at a rapid pace and your teen is not grasping the material. On the lacrosse field, your athlete is not getting playing time despite his/her belief that he/she is trying really hard during practice. As an adolescent, it can be intimidating to approach the teacher or coach and have a one-on-one conversation with an adult authority figure. But these conversations are imperative to our kids learning how to be assertive and communicate appropriately, which will continue to serve them throughout their lives, not only at school but in their careers and relationships. So, the teen can talk to his/her math teacher about getting extra help and/or slowing down the instructional pace. The lacrosse player can ask the coach what he/she can do to improve and earn more playing time.
How can we as parents support our kids? First, we can listen. Listen to our kids feelings, thoughts, and concerns. Listening is also an important part of being assertive. Take interest and encourage your kids to talk to their teachers, coaches, etc. instead of immediately offering to do it for them. Practice with them. Role play so that the teens can practice how they would like to present themselves and what they would like to say, including their tone of voice (important in the balance between passive and aggressive). And be curious and listen (again) when your kids tell you how their interaction/conversation went with their teacher, coach, friend, etc. Remember that learning to advocate for themselves is a process and make take time, so offer your teen patience. And, if the situation requires, please offer additional support or intervene if necessary.