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There is a difference between assertive behaviour and aggressive behaviour. Parents should teach their children how to be assertive without being aggressive.

Encouraging children to learn and practice assertive behaviour will equip them to thrive in a busy, aggressive world without losing the important values of respect and compromise.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers suggests that talking things through with our children, reasoning and negotiating with them, and expecting them to talk back and question us, teaches them how to interact comfortably with adults and to speak up when they need to. They learn that it is alright to assert themselves, even when that person is older or an authority figure.

Read our article about dealing with the opposite end of the scale, the shy child.

Shift in parenting beliefs

I once believed you should never allow your children to reason or negotiate with you – you should stand your ground and let them know that you are the parent and they are the child. But I now see that parenting is not all black and white. In fact, most of it is grey. Whether we accept it or not, we negotiate, reason and question situations every day of our lives and we all benefit from asserting ourselves appropriately.

So, why not teach our children the skills and equip them to cope in today’s fast-paced and often aggressive world? The world our grandparents grew up in – where the idea that children should be seen and not heard – doesn’t quite cut it in today’s world. That said, there is a difference between being assertive and aggressive. How do we teach our children to be assertive without adding to the worldwide epidemic of disrespectful, rude and obnoxious youth?


Dr Phil describes an assertive person as someone who gets what they need, but with respect to the rights of others. An aggressive person,  on the other hand,  gets what they need at the expense of another person. I have never been a die-hard Dr Phil fan, but I think his explanation sums it up pretty well. It all boils down to respect – for others and for ourselves.

A counselling psychologist based in Durban believes respectful assertive behaviour is linked to a healthy self-esteem. She feels parents have a vital role to play in teaching their children to be assertive.

Parents as role models

“Parents need to role-play and practise social conversations with their children,” she says. “Stay connected to them by asking specific questions about their day. Then be real with them by using examples from your own life to help them figure out the best way to deal with a situation they are facing.” She continues: “There is an appropriate time for being assertive. It is perfectly alright for a child to challenge an adult, but they need to wait for a gap in the conversation. Tone of voice is also important.”

Perhaps we need to be aware of what we are modelling as parents. Our children are highly impressionable imitators and they are watching our every move. Examining our own behaviour is often a great starting point to understanding why our children are either too passive or too aggressive.

Helping our children to become assertive will improve their self-confidence as well as their ability to make choices and follow through on them. It will help them to withstand peer pressure and may well save them from being targeted by the school bully. In turn, it will help them with the concept of compromise and how to take other people’s feelings into account. And ultimately, a strong sense of self will help them succeed in whatever they put their hearts, minds and efforts into.

Aggressive, assertive and passive behaviour

Use these examples to talk to your children about the correct way to assert themselves.

If a brother or sister snatches your book

Aggressive: “Give me my book NOW!”
Assertive: “I’m busy reading that book. Please give it back to me and when I am done you can have it.”
Passive: “Take the book. I don’t need it anyway.”

A friend at school keeps calling you a silly name and you don’t like it

Aggressive: “Call me that again and I’ll thump you.”
Assertive: “I don’t like it when you call me that. If you do it again I may choose not to play with you.”
Passive: Cries and walks away.

Someone asks a favour of you but you are too busy

Aggressive: “No, I’m busy. Do it yourself.”
Assertive: “I really can’t do it today but I might be able to help you another time.”
Passive: “Sure. I’ll stop what I’m doing.”

Child Magazine