Monday, May 21, 2012

Assertiveness For Families

I like to define assertiveness as the art of asking for what you want in a way that makes it easy for the other person to give it to you.   If you think of it as a skill that can be learned by anyone, and can be learned easily by children at an early age when they are learning all kinds of communications skills, I can explain how it is preferable to the other ways of getting what you want.

The other ways of getting what you want that are available even to small children are: crying or whining, demanding, and suffering silently or pouting.  We were all born knowing how to cry and whine to alert the big people that we are unhappy and something needs to change.  Crying or whining works for babies and very small children who can’t communicate their needs very specifically.  It is irritating or distressing, so it gets our attention and motivates us to do something to stop the crying.  When parents respond appropriately and the baby is comforted, she stops crying and parents feel better. 

Demanding attention with an aggressive tone is also possible, even for very small children.  Like whining, it is irritating, but it can be effective because the squeaky wheel often does get the grease.  But it can also generate resistance because of a sense of a power struggle, and sometimes parents begin to say no automatically to a lot of requests when they feel that they are burdensome demands. 

Quite a few young children learn that they can make others uncomfortable in a quiet way by pouting or suffering silently without making a noisy fuss.   This works in some relationships, but also tends to generate irritation or resistance.

By contrast to these behaviors, asking clearly for what you want is more effective.  It is respectful of the other because it gives them a choice to say yes or no, where as whining or demanding or pouting are manipulative.  Asking politely generates less resistance because it is less irritating or aggressive.  When the assertive individual is specific and clear about what he is asking for, it does not force the other to guess what is needed.  Crying or pouting often leaves it up to the other to guess how to resolve the problem.  Finally, asking gives the other a chance to feel good when they grant your request and you thank them for it.

Assertive asking is an Emotional Intelligence skill that toddlers can learn and it can benefit them greatly later in life as well as making family life for parents much more pleasant.  Unfortunately, many of us never master this skill.  You don't have to look very far to find bosses who only know how to demand and criticize or friends who only seem to know how to manipulate, coerce, pout, or threaten to get what they want.   

Parents can teach assertive asking in two simple ways:

1)      Simply ask your toddler, calmly and persistently, to rephrase their whiny demand as an assertive request.   When they do it, reward them as often as practical by granting their request.   When you have to say no, first praise them for their assertiveness then cushion your denial with some offer of an alternative.

2)      Demonstrate assertive asking in communications between adults and between adults and older children in the family.  Enlist older siblings in teaching assertiveness.  Calm persistence and repetition are just as effective in teaching the skill of assertiveness as they are in teaching language skills and other social skills. 

The hardest thing about assertiveness lies in knowing what you need so that you can ask for it clearly.  The request must be specific, and realistic.  Sometimes this requires some problem solving skills that young children don’t yet have, and parents can help by making some suggestions about what they might ask for.  “Do you think you are tired and need someone to read you a story?”  “Can you ask for that?”

The next most important thing in assertiveness is timing, which requires some empathy for the other person so that your request can be heard.  Children shouldn’t have to be too sensitive to their parents’ needs, though they often are acutely aware and can be quite naturally empathic.  Parents can help the child develop this skill by coaching them:  “I can’t read you a story right now, because I am fixing dinner, but if you remind me after dinner, I would be happy to.”

The final key to effective assertiveness is persistence.  Children rarely have difficulty with this, but adults often give up after asking once and not getting what they want.  You have to know that lots of people respond negatively at first, but will be able to hear your request and respond positively if you are persistent.  And when their positive response is rewarded with your gratitude, mutual cooperation is enhanced.

Children stop asking and revert to whining, demanding, pouting, or sneaking if they are intimidated or denied too often and too harshly.  They need to know that asking is alright and that it works.  This undermines the shame and anger that can develop in an environment where it is not ok to ask. 

For more on Emotional Intelligence Skills go to Change-for-Good.ORG