Have you ever watched “Back to the Future” and wondered what would have happened if George McFly knew how to stand up for himself? Bullying — synonymous with childhood (and ‘80s movies) — doesn’t just exist in schools. In today’s digital era, cyberbullying is just as problematic as physical and emotional abuse.
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And with the old adage “boys will be boys” making way for #MeToo, how do you raise your boy to “be a man” without creating a bully? The key, says pediatric behavioral health specialist Amy Lee, PhD, is to teach assertiveness from the beginning.
The difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness
Being assertive is a skill that’s as fundamental as learning your ABCs. If bullying is poison, then assertiveness is the antidote. And contrary to the rules of reality television, assertiveness and aggressiveness are not the same.
Aggressive behavior seeks to dominate, harm or instill fear.
Assertiveness is communicating your point while respecting what others think and feel. “You can stand up for yourself and move away from people who are dangerous. And you can do it without aggression or retaliation,” notes Dr. Lee. “Assertiveness is focused on doing what’s right, what’s true and speaking up for the greater good.”
Aggression isn’t always bad
But here’s where it can get tricky. Dr. Lee says some aggressive play can be normal — even helpful — as boys grow.
They’re learning self-control through pretend play. They’re playing out a scenario but not trying to harm each other. Usually they’re working through a problem. The good guys win because being bad is bad.
This aggressive play doesn’t have to lead to bullying. It can lead to a better sense of self and instill assertiveness.
How to stop bullying with assertiveness
So, aside from allowing playful wrestling matches and games of “cops and robbers,” how can you help your child develop assertiveness?
Dr. Lee says to lay the foundation early by teaching boys AND girls:
Emotion language. “Label emotions to help kids identify what they are feeling when something happens. ‘That makes you so mad. I know you don’t like it when Mommy takes your toy away,’” relates Dr. Lee. “It also helps kids understand that other people have emotional states.”
Self-control. “Pay lots of attention to expected or positive behaviors. ‘Thank you for being helpful. Thank you for listening.’ When a parent comes in and tells me, ‘My 5-year-old is defiant and never listens,’ the first thing we teach them is positive attention.”
Dr. Lee says that for every correction or punishment you give, aim for five to 10 instances of telling them what they did right.
Timeout to calm down. Don’t give excessive attention to negative behavior. “Use timeouts as a way to calm down. Take away all attention, and give your child time to pull it together,” advises Dr. Lee. “Remove the child and the object causing conflict from the situation immediately without a lot of talk. Once things settle down, you can problem-solve.”
Problem-solving. “Let’s say a child repeatedly hits his younger brother. The parents have repeatedly corrected it, but it continues. Do some problem-solving together to find out why,” says Dr. Lee.
“The parent might say, ‘You keep hitting your brother. What’s up?’ By doing this, you teach your kid to name the problem, and you get their perspective. Then, armed with the full picture — maybe the younger brother is wrecking his brother’s toys — you can come up with a solution together.
Developing these four skills can take time, but the result is worth it: Simply planting these seeds helps assertiveness grow in your child. “Assertiveness is an offshoot of having emotional language and knowing how to control yourself and problem-solve when you have emotions,” says Dr. Lee.
It will help your son know when to say, “I need help,” when he’s feeling victimized — even if he suspects the other kid “didn’t mean it,” or he’s been told not to tattle. Dr. Lee explains, “It’s teaching kids to stand their ground with, ‘This is how I feel. This is what I need. This is wrong.’”
Is it ever okay to hit back?
The short answer is no. (That was easy.)
“Aggressive behavior is aggressive behavior even if somebody hurt you first,” says Dr. Lee. “Aggression may seem like a solution in the short run, but can eventually lead to much bigger problems in life. Society rewards self-control and assertiveness.”
So while there may be a culture of verbal aggression in some boy relationships (cue the “your mama” jokes), boys should learn to manage themselves in ways that don’t make them or others victims:
- With their friends, they can learn to stand up and say, “Knock it off!” if something’s going too far.
- If they’re being bullied, “Don’t feed the bully your anger, attention or hurt. Don’t give them your lunch money. Don’t give them anything,” advises Dr. Lee. Kids can reclaim their power by not reacting.
But what if your kid is already a teenager? Take a deep breath before giving yourself the Worst Parent of the Year award. It’s never too late to learn to be assertive. And there are plenty of resources to help you teach it.
“School counselors, law enforcement, mental health professionals and pediatricians are all well-armed with strategies to help parents and kids — no matter the situation,” says Dr. Lee.