Teaching Teens to Stand Up for Themselves in the Right Way

standing up for yourself

For some teens, standing up for oneself is intimidating. They might worry that they will lose social status or that the other person will be angry or not like them anymore. On the flip side, some teens have no problem standing up for themselves but have trouble responding in a calm, non-confrontational way. They come across as hostile. Neither style – being passive or aggressive – is ideal. The best style – being assertive – is one of the most positive skill sets you can encourage in a teenager for lifelong success.

Assertiveness is standing up for your right to be treated fairly and/or advocating for yourself in a clear, direct and honest way that is positive and proactive. It is expressing your opinions, needs, and feelings, without ignoring or hurting the opinions, needs, and feelings of others. Studies show that teens who are assertive are:

  • less likely to be bullied;
  • better communicators;
  • less likely to act aggressively;
  • more confident;
  • less stressed;
  • more responsible; and
  • better equipped to resist peer pressure.

Despite the benefits of assertive communication, many teens don’t know how to stand up for themselves in an appropriate manner. Following are ways parents can teach their teens to be assertive:

Explain the Styles

Parents should take the time to explain the three main communication styles: passive, aggressive and assertive. Ask your teen to evaluate themselves and determine which style they use most often. If they use passive or aggressive styles, ask them how they might be able to change their style to be more assertive. Provide examples if they are not sure.

Establish a Democratic Household

The best place for teens to practice standing up for themselves is at home. Create a home environment where teens know their opinion counts, even if you don’t agree with them. Involve teens in decision-making for the family and discuss current events. These practices will demonstrate to your teen that their ideas matter, they have a right to express themselves, and there are ways to disagree in a respectful way.

Teach Your Teen to Identify Feelings

Many teens are not able to identify their feelings, which is why they act out their feelings instead of talking through them. For example, a frustrated teen might slam their door rather than explain what is bothering them. However, a teen who can identify his/her feelings can then translate that knowledge into telling other people how they are feeling and why they are experiencing those emotions. Explain to your teen that other people will not automatically know what your teen needs or feels. Encourage your child to express their thoughts, feelings, and opinions in a specific, clear, honest and respectful way. Provide them with examples so they can better understand. For example, “I feel angry when dad doesn’t come to my game,” is a much better expression than, “Dad makes me so mad!”

Discuss Body Language

Parents should explain that the way you speak has a significant impact on how effective your communication is. Offer your teen these tips to improve their communication:

  • Face the other person, keep your shoulders back and chin up, and make eye contact. Have a serious facial expression, but don’t frown or appear hostile.
  • Do not fidget.
  • Try to avoid using fillers, such as “um,” “you know,” “uh,” and “like,” when speaking.
  • Keep your voice calm and soft. You don’t need to be loud to make yourself heard. If the person you are talking to does not appear to be listening, try a firm “excuse me” to get their attention.
  • Avoid using a whiney or abrasive tone.
  • Be clear and specific in your explanations and direct in your requests. Your statements should be short and to the point. They should provide facts and specifics rather than vague hints.

Teach Your Teen to Express Feelings in a Positive Way

Learning how to tell someone how you feel in a calm, positive way is a valuable skill that will help your teen improve their relationships throughout their lifetime. This skill takes practice, and teens need help from adults to learn how to speak up in a respectful way. If your teen is upset at someone, try to coach him/her through some ideas for what to say before they confront the other person. Here are ideas for parents to use to help their teen:

  • Encourage your teen to delay confrontations until they feel calm. When our emotions are high, it’s hard to express our concerns in a calm and/or non-confrontational way. This also gives your teen time to think through exactly what they want to say.
  • If your teen tends to be aggressive, either verbally or physically, explain that name calling or pushing are completely unacceptable. Pick some real examples from when you have seen them react inappropriately to a friend or sibling and brainstorm some different ideas for how they could have handled the situation in a more appropriate way. Explain that you want them to stand up for themselves, but the way they do it must be more respectful.
  • If your teen tends to be passive, try to point out some of those behaviors to him or her from real examples. If you see your teen saying, “I don’t care,” every time her friends ask her what she wants to do, have a conversation with her (later, when you’re alone) about speaking up and sharing her opinion.
  • Encourage your teen to begin her sentences with “I” instead of “you” when expressing a concern to someone else. It’s a subtle difference, but makes a huge impact in communication. Messages that start with “I feel…” are better received by the other person than messages that begin with “You make me…”. For example, teach your teen to say, “I feel angry when you don’t show up on time,” rather than, “You don’t care about me at all because you never show up when you say you will.”
  • Advise your teen to avoid exaggerations and judgments. They should stick to the facts when they are explaining their problem. Explain that using “always” or “never” in statements backfires, because they make the other person feel too defensive to hear their viewpoint. Statements such as “you always forget to clean my clothes” or “you never want to do anything fun” are untrue and hurtful. Judgments also make people feel defensive. A fact is “your shirt has some stains on it.” A judgment is “you look sloppy.”
  • Remind your teen to keep their focus on solving the problem they are having, rather than accusing or blaming the other person. Your teen should not be trying to “win” a fight, but rather work together with the other person to develop a reasonable solution to a problem.

Know When to Butt Out 

When your teen has a conflict with a peer or needs to speak up to an adult, let them take the lead. Getting involved sends the message that you don’t believe your teen is capable of handling the situation on their own. Allowing your teen to handle disputes gives them the opportunity to practice negotiation and other social skills. You can certainly talk to them afterwards to evaluate how well it went, as a way to improve for the future, but don’t interfere during the conflict.

Praise Assertive Behavior

Reinforce your child’s attempts at being assertive, even if they’re not perfect. Anytime you catch your teen using an “I” statement, respectfully sharing his/her opinion, standing up straight and using eye contact, or expressing his/her needs in a positive way, praise your teen! Notice those behaviors, and when you are alone, tell them how proud you are of them. If they use assertiveness with you, mention it at the end of your conversation, perhaps saying, “I really appreciate the way you told me how you feel in a calm manner.”

Role Model Assertive Behavior

Teenagers learn best by watching others. Role modeling is a parent’s greatest influencer in their child’s life. Your teen will naturally develop assertiveness skills by watching you when you’re communicating with others. So, be sure that you are identifying your feelings (out loud to them), speaking to others directly and honestly but with respect, projecting confident body language, using “I” statements, sharing your opinion, standing firm in decisions that are important to you, and avoiding judgmental statements. If another adult is rude to you, act the way you would want your children to act.

Final Thoughts…

Assertiveness comes to some people more naturally than to others. If your teen has generally been passive or a people pleaser most of their life, being assertive can be really tough. If your teen has been aggressive, it can be hard to tone it down. Remind your teen that assertiveness is actually vital to their own well-being – they are taking care of themselves!

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