Do you have a child who has been on the receiving-end of bullying, teasing or meanness? These are things that all children will experience at one time or another as they grow up. How your child handles these situations will be determined by their levels of assertiveness. Do you have an assertive child who can survive and thrive in a world that will definitely dish up some uncomfortable or even hostile moments? How assertive are you? The information below is as applicable to children as it is to adults.

What is assertiveness?

Being assertive is about:

  • Being able to stand up for yourself in a way that is both respectful to yourself and others
  • Shows you value yourself and won’t be walked all over or pushed around
  • That you are prepared to put your own needs first from time-to-time
  • That you have boundaries

We are not born assertive, we learn assertiveness skills over our lifetime. This means we can help our children to develop them in childhood so that they are well-prepared for adult life where they will really need to be assertive.

“Being effectively assertive is not only about WHAT you say or do. It’s also the ability to carefully choose WHEN and HOW to be assertive,” says psychologist and assertiveness expert, Jo Hamilton in her excellent book, The Ultimate Assertiveness Toolbox for Kids (Clockwork Books , 2016)….

Jo says that when we interact with other people, we are constantly reflecting on our interaction:

  • How well is the interaction going?
  • What is being said and how do I feel about that?
  • How do I want to respond to what is being said?

People who are skilled at being assertive are able to quickly gauge a situation. They will be able to decide whether they need to be assertive and, most importantly, how to be assertive so that there is a positive result. To know when and how to be assertive, you need to know what you want the result of your assertive behaviour to be:

  • Do you want a comment?
  • An apology?
  • A reaction?
  • Do you want to be left alone?

Assertiveness in the playground

The playground at school can be a minefield of assertiveness booby traps for kids. Says Jo, “Children don’t yet have the maturity and self-control an adult might have in the workplace. It can be a cut-throat environment in which you must quickly learn the art of survival. Some children fare well on the playground and are quite oblivious to the tensions and treachery. Some children thrive on the pressures and demands – they soon become the “cool” kids, the power magnets.

“But there are those children who don’t do so well on the playground. These kids are weakened and broken down by the playground. They are the kids who always seem to say the wrong thing, to do the wrong thing, laugh too long at the joke. They are sensitive, quick to anger, too small or too big, too eager or too weird. They are just too….wrong. Kids who battle to be assertive can be easy pickings.”

She explains that while their behaviour is important it’s more about their reactions. “They are quickly labelled: too sensitive, too aggressive, can’t take a joke. Somehow they are always made to feel like it’s their fault, that something is wrong with them or they are doing something wrong. And the power-magnet child wins. Always.”

Some common characteristics of power-magnet children:

  • They are good at retorts
  • They are quick-thinking
  • They seem to be fearless
  • They are confident
  • They can be critical
  • They can make snide comments and be judgemental
  • They know they have the power (even if at times they don’t want it)
  • They know how to pick their targets
  • They pick up on the vibes and tensions in the playground
  • They sense other kids’ reactions
  • They are acutely aware of the effect their presence and behaviour has on others
  • They are keen observers of other people

There is nothing inherently wrong with either the power magnets or the sensitive children. It’s group dynamics that throws the balance out – friendship groups of twos and threes, children leaving groups and new children coming into established groups. These pose challenges to power structures and bonds that have formed and kids react to that with jealousy, envy, anger and protectiveness.

“The kids who struggle to be assertive provide the power-magnet child with precisely the feedback that they need to confirm their power and superiority. The kids that struggle to develop their assertive skills too easily become the puppet to the puppet-master. How? By the way they react,” explains Jo. When they react to a put-down, they:

  • Show their hurt and pain in their facial expressions and body language
  • Cry or sulk
  • Run away
  • Look mortified
  • Lash out, trying to be mean back
  • Try to hit or hurt the other child in an attempt to defend themselves

Jo Hamilton“Their reaction doesn’t achieve what they wanted. All the victim’s reaction does is give the mean kid feedback they want. It reaffirms the mean kid’s power and control…..The mean kid is also reassuring themselves that , this time, they are not the one being hurt. They have saved themselves and laugh at the hurt in the victim, even as they subconsciously identify with it.”

Join me in a fascinating discussion with Jo Hamilton about helping your child develop their assertiveness. She will be sharing some of the 20 amazing tools she has detailed in her book, The Ultimate Assertiveness Toolbox for Kids (Clockwork Books, 2016):



When:  Saturday, 11 May 2019

Time:  10 – 11am (South African time)

Where: Facebook Live on my Parenting Matters Group (click on the page and request to join this group where we have parenting conversations that matter, because parenting matters!)