Friday, February 5, 2010



In my practice as an outpatient child psychologist,
I often hear the question, "Can children be assertive?"
The answer is, for most very young children, they already are.
Kids will tell you what they want, usually immediately and
often with considerable noise if they do not get it.
Aside from congenitally shy children and a few other
diagnostic groups, most kids speak their minds one way or
another, often with their bodies. Really young ones do not
have the words to tell us their feelings, but they have little
torsos that contort or jump up and down, and they have little
mouths to scream bloody murder when they are frustrated.
Most parents are familiar with the "Terrible Two's, which
is when much of this first comes to a head. This is just the
average age for oppositional or rebellious behavior. It
actually starts when a child reaches one and one-half years.
It can go on and on, sometimes until a child reaches age four.
During these times, children are building their vocabularies.
Usually their vocabularies reflect the things in their
space--table, lamp, toy, food, TV, bed. A little later,
children start using words to reflect a greater range of
interests and cognitive ability. "I'm hungry but I don't want
broccoli. Can I stay up past bedtime? My brother took my
shoes so I punched him." Also about the same time, probably
around late pre-school or early kindergarten, children start
using words that show they can read or add numbers or know their
colors, regardless of the objects.
As a child psychologist, I have noted that children do not
usually have a vocabulary of their feelings. They do not use
words like "angry" or "hurt." They will often act angry, hurt
or afraid, but will usually not say the word until the parent
ask, "Are you angry, hurt or afraid?" Then, the child will
usually say yes, but again, not use the word.
One of the things I try to do in my office is teach kids a
vocabulary of their feelings. On my office door is one of
those large colored posters of sixteen faces, each depicting an
emotion. Right under each face is the word for that feeling.
Kids usually cannot tell me what the word is for their feelings,
but they can instantly point to the correct face. Then, I can
show them and tell them the word that describes how they feel.
Surprisingly, it only takes once or twice for a child to put the
face together with the correct word.
I once had a two year old that could not sit still.
He was not ADHD and did not have any learning disabilities.
He was just anxious. I told him that he was anxious and of
course, he did not have a clue what I meant. Then I put it
into his language; meaning, Igave a very concrete example.
I said to the little boy, "Being anxious is when you have
butterflies in your tummy." His eyes got very big. He said,
"Do I have butterflies in my tummy?" I said, "No, but when you
are anxious Your tummy feels like it, just like it feels right
now. It makes you want to not sit still." He got it
right away. The next week, this little boy came running down
the hallway, practically yelling, "Dr. Steve, Dr. Steve,
I'm anxious." His mother almost fainted, but it shows us that
children are capable of quickly understanding a lot about their
feelings at a very young age.
The reason this is important is because assertiveness has
two major components. The first is more intellectual, or say
cognitive. We have to express some idea, preferably with words.
But, the second aspect is feeling. Adults do not express this
very well either, which is probably why kids are not taught it.
To be assertive, one has to communicate at the content level
(the most superficial, issue based, usually intellectual level)
plus let the listener know something about the emotion underneath.
Assertiveness doubles in effectiveness when we add a verbal
description of our feeling/emotion as we are describing what we
think or want. Can kids do this? Absolutely.
I have written an ebook about the five steps of assertiveness
that goes into the basics and a lot more with considerable depth.
But guess what? All of the information can be translated to our
kids we just speak their language.

Dr. Griggs

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