How to Teach Kids to Stand Up For Themselves

Reviewed by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person Centred Counsellor and The Ridge Practice and Everlief Child Psychology
Author: Hayley Vaughan-Smith, Person-Centred Counsellor

Have you ever found yourself stepping in to resolve a conflict or problem your child is experiencing?  I know I’ve done this. It comes from a place of love and protection.

However, when we do this, our children are not learning how to solve problems for themselves or figure out what to do and how to respond.

So, we actually need to teach kids to stand up for themselves. 

It’s a life skill that will help them to build confidence, resilience and assertiveness.

Let’s take a look at how to teach kids to stand up for themselves.

teen girl giving a presentation in class

Assertive Kids: What Do They Do Differently?

Assertive kids tend to:

  • Communicate Clearly: Assertive kids express their thoughts and feelings openly and respectfully, without being aggressive or passive.
  • Set Boundaries: They understand their rights and are comfortable setting and enforcing personal boundaries.
  • Show Empathy: While standing up for themselves, they also consider others’ feelings and perspectives, showing empathy and understanding.
  • Solve Problems: Assertive children are proactive in seeking solutions to conflicts and are willing to compromise when necessary.
  • Stay Calm: They manage their emotions effectively, staying calm and composed even in challenging situations.
  • Display Confidence: They display confidence in their actions and decisions, without being overbearing.

Conversely, passive kids tend to avoid conflict or stay in situations that require them to stand up for themselves. 

They often fear rejection or find it difficult to say no. This can sometimes make them vulnerable to bullying or other targeted behaviour from others.

Does your child have some or all of the skills from the bullet points above?

If not, that’s okay, you can support them to learn these skills over time and this article will help.

a list of the features of assertive kids

5 Top Tips: Teaching Your Child to Stand Up For Themselves

Let’s have a look at how to teach kids to stand up for themselves and develop assertiveness skills in 5 easy steps.

1. Body Language

Did you know that the words we say are only a very small part of how we communicate with other people?

In fact, communication is far more influenced by our tone of voice and the body language we use.

Body language is a nonverbal part of communication that can convey our emotions and intentions.  It’s made up of the following aspects:

  • Eye contact: This denotes engagement and interest.  A lack of eye contact may suggest discomfort or even deceit.
  • Facial expressions: We can often ‘read’ how someone is feeling by their expression or facial reactions. E.g. shocked, excited, confused.
  • Gestures: This might be hands, arms, nodding or shaking the head.
  • Posture: This can tell us something about the person and how engaged they are in the communication. For instance, slouching or folding of arms may depict disinterest or defensiveness. An open and upright posture may suggest interest and keenness to participate.
  • Proximity of the communicators and personal space boundaries is important. Too close may feel intimidating. Too far may suggest lack of interest.
tween boy looking in mirror

2. Tone of Voice

Like body language, our tone of voice says a lot about what we are really trying to say. 

The tone and volume and also the pitch of voice often go hand-in-hand with the body language conveyed.

Using the right tone of voice in the context of a conversation or disagreement can be just one of the effective ways of demonstrating assertive behaviour. 

Look below at how the tone of voice your child might use, can affect the outcome of the communication between them and someone else.

Assertive tone (calm, but firm and clear)

  • “It made me feel sad when you scribbled all over my special painting. Please don’t do that again”.
  • “Sorry, can I help fix it?”

When we keep calm and use clear messaging, people are more likely to listen and hear what you are saying.

Inappropriate tone (shouting in a loud voice)

  • “You’re so mean, you’ve ruined my painting, I hate you so much”
  • “I hate you – it was no good anyway”.

When we shout, people tend to go straight into defense mode because they feel attacked.

little boy doing martial arts

3. What to Say

Ideally, what we want to teach our children is to have an assertive response and stand up for themselves without them being rude or antagonistic.

In my counselling practice when exploring challenging behaviour or difficulties with communication, I encourage young people to take a deep breath (I call it a PAUSE BREATH), where they can take a moment to centre themselves, before responding.

This can help them to think about and position what they are going to say and how they are going to say it.

Using ‘I’ statements can be very helpful as it avoids placing blame on others, but communicates how someone’s behaviour has made your child feel. For example: “I prefer it when you ask my opinion”; “I would prefer to work alone thank you”.

Let’s look at some examples of assertive responses:

  1. “It’s not OK for you to torment my friend, you need to stop otherwise I will let the teacher know”
  2. “I get frustrated when you interrupt me, I would like you to let me share my opinions too”
  3. “It makes me feel invisible when you don’t include me”
  4. “I haven’t had a go yet, can I have a turn after you please?”
  5. “We just don’t agree with each other.  Why don’t we try and think of a 3rd way to approach the project”.

4. Look Out For Teachable Moments

There will be lots of teachable moments when thinking about how to teach kids to stand up for themselves. 

They will arise in everyday, real situations, giving you a great opportunity to share valuable lessons and life skills.

Your child might find role play fun. It’s a great way to try out a set of skills and appropriate responses in different scenarios. It can be really helpful if your child is finding communication or conflict resolution difficult.

girl and boy dealing with a confrontation in a park

5. Model Standing Up For Yourself

We can be a good role model to our children in so many different ways.

We can use our own responses to model assertiveness in the following ways:

  • Be self-aware. Know your own beliefs and values and talk to your child about them and how they are formed.
  • Use your best communication skills. Be clear and consistent. Use “I’ statements to avoid apportioning blame. Show how to actively listen.
  • Have personal boundaries. Communicate these by saying no, asking for what you need, or stating your boundaries in a firm and fair way.
  • Be confident with your body language and tone of voice. Show your child how to respond effectively and respectfully in different situations.

TAKE THE QUIZ!

When Should Children Stand Up For Themselves Vs Seeking Help From an Adult?

Depending on your child’s age, it will take time for them to develop emotional intelligence and life skills. 

So, when should your child seek help from an adult?

In my view, the main factors to consider are the level of risk involved and the type of situation.

For minor conflicts or disagreements, children can learn lessons from trying to resolve for themselves. 

For example, learning about sharing and taking turns.

You can support them in building their problem-solving skills by letting them have some independence to learn from watching and making their own mistakes.

If a situation is more serious such as your child being bullied, it’s important that they know that they can share their worries with a trusted adult. This might be you, or a teacher or maybe someone like their Scout leader.

It’s important for us to know how to teach kids to stand up for themselves. 

They will need these assertiveness skills to build healthy relationships with their school friends and know when and how to stand up to peer pressure.

Teaching kids to Stand Up For Themselves: Case Study – Eva

Eva is 10 years old. She is a happy and bright student who usually loves school and attends lots of activities outside of school. 

Sadly, Eva has been experiencing unkind behaviour on a regular basis from a number of her peers over the last term.

This has resulted in her feeling sad and low. 

Teachers have noticed that Eva is lacking her usual friendly and happy spirit. She has started to ask to be excused from certain lessons due to feeling sick.

Eva is being subjected to name-calling, goading, and some inaccurate rumours and gossip have been circulating amongst her cohort. 

This happens in class time and at breaks and has left Eva feeling increasingly isolated and no longer sure of who her ‘real friends’ are.

If the unkind behaviour is not addressed and resolved, the long-term consequences for Eva may be significant and long-lasting. Her view of herself and ability to have positive self-esteem may change with negative consequences. 

Eva’s ability to form trusting and meaningful relationships in the future could be compromised and badly affected. Her love of school and her ability to perform well academically may take a downward spiral.

Support for Eva

Eva’s parents have noticed the difference in her demeanour and talk to her about what they have observed.

Eva decides to open up to her teachers about the situation she finds herself in. 

With her mum by her side, Eva is able to share her experience and how it has left her feeling without fear of reprisal. 

The school’s Headteacher implements an anti-bullying workshop for the year group to attend. They also speak to individuals about their specific and targeted behaviour towards Eva. 

Eva’s teachers, the Student Support Officer and School Counsellor all work together with Eva and her mum to provide the tools for Eva to cope at school, recognise her own needs and build her resilience and confidence back up.

group of teens in a huddle

Bullying and Teaching Children to Stand Up For Themselves: The Bottom Line

When a child’s health and well-being is being impacted, early intervention is essential to address the behaviours. 

We must be assertive, working with teachers, children and sometimes other parents, to nip this behaviour in the bud.

The bottom line is that children must understand that bullying and being taken advantage of are unacceptable.

It’s essential to instill in them a strong moral compass and the courage to uphold their rights and those of others.

Teach them the value of respect, for themselves and everyone around them, emphasizing that everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and dignity.

I recommend aiming for an environment of open dialogue about these issues at home.

little girl putting hand up in class

How to Teach Kids to Stand Up For Themselves: Final Thoughts

Teaching kids to stand up for themselves is a key element of their social development. 

Social skills around healthy assertiveness are a vital part of effective communication, conflict resolution and building strong and healthy relationships. 

Ultimately, if we can raise self-sufficient kids who can stand up for themselves, are confident and can act independently, we support them in achieving personal growth and autonomy.

They will have learned to trust in themselves as they use learnt skills to navigate their world.

I hope you and your child find these strategies helpful!

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How to Help a Teenager With Low Self-Esteem

Assertive Parenting: The Incredible Benefits for Your Child

10 Best Self Esteem Books For 10 Year Olds

Hayley Vaughan-Smith is a Person-Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling & Psychotherapy Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.

Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care for four years.

Hayley is mum to 3 grown up girls, and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy. Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.

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