Ministry of Education, Guyana

How to Raise Kids Who Can Speak Up

In a world where kids are often shushed, it can be difficult to teach kids how to use their voices effectively.

From the moment children begin to speak, we also begin to teach them how to be quiet. Kids are told to use quiet voices just about everywhere they go (stores, classes, and waiting rooms, to name a few). The message they consistently receive is: Listen, be respectful, and follow directions. Young children spend a lot of time learning how to adhere to the rules, but they don’t spend much time learning to speak up.

When children also learn how to express themselves with confidence and to assert their needs and ideas, they experience increased self-esteem, positive peer relationships, and better school performance. The ability to speak up helps kids manage their emotions, cope with conflict in a healthy way, and seek help when they need it.

While some kids are more naturally assertive than others, assertiveness skills can be taught.

Try some of these strategies to help your child speak up when it counts.

Define It
It’s natural for kids to struggle with understanding what it actually means to be assertive. When kids use aggressive communication, they are told to quiet down. When they use passive communication, they are told to speak up. It’s confusing, at best.

Role play is a great way to show kids the differences between the three communication styles. Describe what it means to engage in passive communication — eyes looking down, inaudible voice, using fillers when talking — then take turns acting it out. Do the same with aggressive communication — loud and imposing!

Finally, describe what assertive communication looks like: eye contact; a calm, confident, and clear voice tone; active listening skills. Create a few skits to practice using these skills.

Model It
Kids need to see their parents using assertive communication out in the world. Kids watch their parents carefully to pick up strategies for things like resolving conflicts, standing up for others, and coping with frustration.

It’s natural to have moments that don’t go as planned — that’s why a key part of the modeling process is debriefing after an event. Talk about what happened, how you intended to handle it, what you actually did to handle it, and what you can do the next time. Ask your child for input. When given the chance to verbalize their thoughts, kids have some very good ideas about how to improve communication and solve problems.

Tap into the Power of Play
Play is a great way for kids to work on learning new skills. Play comes naturally to young children, and often they work through their fears, worries, and curiosity without even realizing it. A child who is having difficulty with peers, for example, might create a play scene where a stuffed animal is being left out or teased by other animals.

When adults give children the freedom to play on their own terms, kids are able to work through these skills. Resist the urge to direct your child; for kids to reap the benefits of play, they have to be in charge. Accept the invitation to join the play, but let your child lead the way. Kids spend a lot of time under the close supervision and direction of adults. The best way for them to find their voices is to slow down and allow plenty of time for play.

Community Practice
Two things that can get in the way of building assertiveness skills include parents speaking on behalf of their kids (this is a natural instinct for parents) and forcing kids to speak up in large settings before they are ready. Kids develop assertiveness skills at different times, and the ability to speak up requires time and practice.

Start small when engaging in community practice. If your child struggles to speak up, encourage them to do so first in a safe environment, like a family gathering. Practice what they might say in advance so they don't freeze up in the moment. As they master speaking up in small environments, try slightly larger safe spaces, like the public library. Again, practice at home first to gain confidence and to work out any worries about asking for help.

Parents have a tendency to take assertiveness for granted because we’ve been doing it for so long, but kids need to learn and practice this skill over and over again. Once they master it, they will be in the position to seek help independently, stand up for others, and speak with confidence in a wide variety of settings.


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