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You're Not My Boss: Learning to Be Assertive Rather Than Aggressive

Practice Makes Better
If your child is young or you've never spent time teaching him to be assertive before, you'll need to give your child the exact words he might use. If he's older and you've been working with him, you can simply say, as I did to my daughter, "Try again." Thanks to your previous instruction and practice with him, he'll be able to do it on his own. It may take a few tries until he gets the tone to match the words, but when you help him to redirect his drive rather than try to suppress it, it works! Brenda found this to be true and shared her story in class.

"My daughter wanted to sleep upstairs in my bedroom this weekend," she told the group. "Her brother and sister were staying with friends. The kids' bedrooms are downstairs; mine is up. But she didn't ask. Instead, with hands on hips and a defiant tone that begged me to challenge her decision, she stated, 'I'm sleeping upstairs tonight, and you can't stop me!' I didn't appreciate being ordered around by a nine-year-old. But I didn't grab the hook. I stopped what I was doing, took deep breath, and then firmly said to her, 'Becca, that's bulldozing. If you're uncomfortable sleeping downstairs and would like to sleep on the floor by me, you can say, "Mom, Jeff and Katrina are gone. I'm not comfortable sleeping downstairs by myself. May I please sleep next to your bed?" Now try again.'

"She repeated the words, but her tone was still defiant.

"'It's much easier for me to see your point of view when you us those words,' I told her, 'but the tone has to match. Try again.'

"I was amazed at how calm and in control I felt. I think it helped her, too, because she repeated it, this time very respectfully. It was so pleasant to hear her ask that way. I was much more open to working with her and together we got out her sleeping bag and made her campsite. That night as we went to bed, she gave me a hug, and said, 'Thanks, Mom, for listening.'"

Sometimes it's difficult when your child starts to assert herself, even if she does so respectfully. When she says, "Can we talk about this?" just as you've taught her, you may still want to scream, "No! I don't want to discuss it!" However, at least it's easier to pause, take the deep breath and then decide if you want to say, "I'm sorry, I don't want to right now," or to calmly ask, "What is important to you that I'm not hearing?" The choice is yours. Just because your child asserts herself respectfully doesn't mean that you always say yes, but it does mean you are connected and working together.

Adjust for the Individual and the Situation
As you go along, remember teaching life skills takes time and practice. Each child and situation is unique. The pace at which your child learns may be different from that of another child. Keep the faith. When you run into stumbling blocks, think about making adjustments for your child's temperament, stress level, or medical issues in order to be more successful. You're not alone in the challenge of being an emotion coach. Just to prove it, I'll let you peek once again into a class to see what hurdles other parents have faced.

Consider Your Child's Temperament/Type
Nicole shook her head. "My kids are so different. One of them is a magnificent little bulldozer. She's very direct. She tells you what she's thinking and is adamant she's not going to sugarcoat anything just to be nice. Teaching her is a constant challenge. Then there's the younger one. If I tell her to try again, she's likely to burst into tears. Why are they so different? Am I doing something wrong?"

All kids will bulldoze, but extroverted, thinking kids seem to be the most proficient. They tend to be very strong individuals who focus on truth and equality. When you're coaching them, they'll wait to understand why it's important to change their wording, and they'll also need help identifying the "true" feeling because they want to be honest. Their natural tendency is to say what comes to mind, so learning to be assertive rather than aggressive may take more time and practice.

Next time Nicole's oldest daughter bulldozes, she might say something like this: "No matter how angry you are, it is not okay for you to call me stupid. Our family treats each other respectfully. Next time you're angry at me, you can say, 'Mom, please listen,' or 'I'm angry.'"

Because factual kids want proof, she may have to add, "This is the rule in our house, and Dad, Grandma, or your teacher will tell you exactly the same thing." Then let go of the topic.

Nicole's younger daughter probably prefers to process her feelings first. If your child is more of the feeling type, learning to assert herself can be more challenging. Kids who need to deal with feelings first dislike conflict and value harmony. Be gentle as you guide them. Stop the bulldozing, but don't crush the driver. Learning to assert oneself is an essential life skill.

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From the book KIDS, PARENTS, AND POWER STRUGGLES: Winning for a Lifetime by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, published by HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright 2000 by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. All rights reserved.

Buy the book at www.harpercollins.com.

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