Not long ago, my 4-year-old son Max was at the park, sitting at the edge of the sandbox and emptying the sand out of his shoes. Out of the blue, a child he didn’t know grabbed his baseball cap off his head and threw it in the garbage. I saw my son running toward me as fast as he could, wearing just his socks and sobbing. It took a few minutes before he was able to calm down, tell me what had happened and to retrieve the hat from the garbage can.
This incident made me wonder how I could teach my shy, sensitive child how to stand up for himself. As a toddler, if another child took a toy from him, he’d cry but make no move to get it back. Now, if another child cuts in front of him at the playground, he just lets it happen. It had always worried me a bit, but after the hat incident, I decided to research some strategies for my little guy.
I talked to Barrie Siegel, my son’s pre-kindergarten teacher at the JPPS School. She says little kids often need help identifying and expressing their feelings and points of view. She suggests talking about the situation, beginning by letting your child know that his feelings are appropriate and justified. “You could say: ‘You have every right to be upset because what that child did was wrong.’ Then you could say, ‘What could you do if something like that happens again?’”
Siegel adds that we have to help little kids find their voice. For example, if a parent says their child is unhappy about something that happened at school, Siegel will encourage the child to tell her what happened (with a parent at his or her side). “It’s very important to have kids find their voices when they’re younger, so that they’re not intimidated when they’re older.”
In her classroom, she works on getting children to express themselves and resolve conflicts on their own — using their words. If she sees a child standing alone in apparent distress, she will ask, “Why do you look upset?”
After some time, the child may point to a classmate and say: ‘He took my turn.’ So then I would say: ‘What do you need to say to him?’ If the child doesn’t know what to say, I give some direction: ‘Look him in the eye, say his name, and very politely say, ‘You took my turn and it hurt my feelings.’ Then you explain to the other child that he needs to apologize.
Little kids need to be directed and shown, Siegel explains. “As time goes on, they internalize these strategies.”
Learning to be assertive and to stand up for yourself is strongly tied to self-esteem, notes Julie Brousseau, a child psychologist with the non-profit organization Avenir d’Enfants. In addition to learning to express their feelings, children need to develop empathy, so that they are able to put themselves in other people’s shoes. “Recognizing other people’s emotions and understanding why others act in a certain way will help them have more self-confidence in a group,” she explains.
Brousseau emphasizes talking to your child to help him develop tools and strategies to deal with different situations. Parents can say: “How does it make you feel when he takes your toy from you? What could you do next time that happens? What could you say?”
Brousseau says that role playing and turn-taking games can help children learn to decode other people’s signals and see their point of view. For example, young children can pretend to be animals with different emotions: an angry lion or a happy monkey. With older children, the parent can act out different emotions. Or, if one child always says, “I’ll be the mommy and you be the baby,” you could introduce a whistle and say: “When I blow the whistle, everyone switches roles!” Turn-taking games also give children an example of how to solve conflicts. When someone tries to take a toy from them, they might learn to say: “How about I play with it for five minutes, and then you can have a turn.”
Practice is a key part of a child learning to stand up for himself. Brosseau says parents need to give children opportunities to play with other children, whether in organized activities, at the park or on play dates – with you present to reassure and support them. But she adds that it is also important not to force them into situations if they are not ready. “You have to respect their own pace and do things gradually,” she says. “There are no instant miracle solutions – it takes patience and time.”
Resources for developing confidence
Julie Brousseau, child psychologist, suggests the following resources for parents of children ages 0-5.
Information is organized by topic and age group. Contains content formerly hosted by “Invest in Kids.” For games and activities, click on “A Parent’s World” and then “Activity Centre.”
Information is organized by age group and topic, and includes simple games and activities parents can do with their children (in French only).
The Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development offers “Key Messages” for parents on topics such as peer relations, temperament and school transition.