By Dr. Becky Bailey
In its simplest terms, saying “no” and being heard is called “assertiveness.” It is a key skill that both adults and children must cultivate in order to develop healthy relationships. Assertive commands focus on what you want to have happen, give clear information about what to do, and are given in a tone of voice that says “just do it.”
Focus on what to do: When you are upset, you are always focused on what you don’t want. Use active calming techniques to regain your composure as necessary, and then shift your focus away from what’s wrong. Instead, focus on what you want to have happen. Have you ever heard an Olympic athlete visualize “not losing?” No! They focus on diving their cleanest dive or running their fastest race in order to achieve their goal. You must do the same with your goal is to paint a picture with your words and gestures of exactly what you want the child to do.
“Don’t you dare touch anything in this store” focuses on what you don’t want (don’t touch). Pivot and reframe it in the positive, “Keep your hands in your pockets.” All assertive commands give usable information. “Don’t ____” is not usable information because it doesn’t tell what to do. “Don’t hit your brother” becomes: “When you want your brother to move say, “move please.”
Give the command assertively: There are three tones of voice we use when we communicate: passive, aggressive and assertive.
A passive approach says, “Approve of me, love me, is it okay with you if___.” A passive approach does not engender respect or compliance, so a passive person often resorts to manipulation or ‘going through the back door’ to get their needs met. Passive communication is not effective communication.
An aggressive approach says, “I am right and you are wrong, no matter what.” It often includes threats, blame, severe consequences or “you” statements that are focused solely on the other person. An aggressive approach invites a defensive response and engenders fear. Aggressive communication is not effective communication.
An assertive approach says, “Do this,” in a clear and respectful manner with a voice of no doubt. With children, follow these steps to deliver an assertive command:
Establish eye contact by approaching the child, getting down on his/her level and moving closer until he/she notices you. For easily distracted children, you may need to get as close as six inches.
Verbally tell the child what you want him/her to do. State your expectations clearly and simply. Be certain that the statement is formulated in the positive… focus on what you want them to do and paint a clear picture with your words. “Hold my hand so you are safe when we cross the street.” “Give me the scissors. They are sharp and could cut you.” “Use a quiet voice while we are in the museum.” “Pick up the markers and put them in the shoe box.”
Give visual, auditory and tactile cues as often as possible. Demonstrate a gentle touch, gesture in the direction you wish the child to move, practice what a soft voice sounds like, etc.
Send the nonverbal message “just do it” with the tone of your voice and with your nonverbal stance as you give the command. If your nonverbal cues are passive, your child may easily refuse. If your nonverbal cues are aggressive, your child will resist in self-defense. When nonverbal and verbal communication both say, “Just do it,” you let the child know your command has meaning.
Celebrate your child’s success. The minute the child begins to show any degree of compliance, jump in with praise. Even if s/he wasn’t really going to comply, s/he likely will comply once you begin to praise him/her. “Good for you,” “You did it,” and “way to go” followed by a description of the child’s action are great ways to celebrate them without judging. “Way to go! You’re reaching for my hand so we can cross the street safely!”
If your child chooses not to comply, repeat the request and say, “I’m going to show you what to do.” Lead the child gently and instructively in completing the request. Say, “I’m going to show you how to cross the street safely” and take the child’s hand in yours.