How to teach girls to be assertive

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"Good" girls often have a hard time getting what they want because they're not comfortable with asking for it. But, girls who drive hard for what they want can be seen as mean. Rachel Simmons shares how to teach girls to be assertive without being aggressive.

How to teach girls to be assertive As parents, how do we teach girls to be more assertive without being mean or too aggressive?
  • Saying what you need in a manner that hurts other's feelings is defined as aggressive; while saying what you need without causing a bad reaction, is defined as being assertive.
  • For girls in group situations, much of their interaction is about learning how to express their needs and saying what they want.
  • An important skill to teach is the difference between "You" statements and “I” statements. “You” statements are usually perceived as being aggressive: "Who do you think you are?” They frequently lead to anger, defensiveness, and hurt feelings, as people feel accused by them. On the other hand, “I” statements are usually perceived as being assertive: “I need you to stop doing this. I feel embarrassed when you hurt my feelings this way.”
  • There is an additional conundrum that needs to be understood and explained: Girls seeking to be more assertive are frequently perceived as aggressive. (Girls are supposed to be “nice,” and nice gets mistranslated into not having any needs. So any expression of needs is perceived as being aggressive, not assertive.)
  • For some girls, just being yelled at, even in situations where it is appropriate and necessary — for example, on a sports field to get their attention — will hurt their feelings. Any kind of assertiveness just feels scary to them.
  • The best advice to give our daughters who want to become more assertive is simple: Think about other's emotions before you say something to make sure it's not hurtful. If our daughters are okay with it, and wouldn't feel hurt, then it's probably okay to say.
  • As parents, we may not realize that our children are being aggressive, and we send them the wrong message. We also may think that any degree of assertiveness is acceptable, and will perceive any attempt to rein it in as inappropriate censorship in this age of girl power where girls are no longer bound by the rules that they shouldn't speak up.
  • We must also realize that girls who are socially skilled, and particularly those who are most aggressive, are frequently (mis) perceived as charming by adults and are thus insulated from parental intervention.
  • And speaking of misperception, also note that girls who have power are frequently least able, or willing, to admit to their privilege. This makes it difficult to confront aggressive behavior that you observe, or hear about, in their social interactions.
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LISA: I’m Lisa Birnbach for howdini.com. Today, we’re talking about how cruel girls are to one another and how to teach our daughters to be assertive and not aggressive. Our guest is Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out and other books. Hi, Rachel. How do you teach girls to be assertive without being aggressive and mean?

RACHEL: That’s a great question and I think you’ve got to put it this way: everybody has needs, everybody wants things. The question is, how are you going to get it? If you say what you need and you hurt someone’s feelings, then you’re being aggressive. If you say what you need and you can do it without giving anybody a bad reaction, then you’ve been assertive.

LISA: Is that really the difference between those two qualities, I’d say?

RACHEL: I would say it is for girls. When girls are in group situations it’s really about expressing their needs and saying what they want. Another great way of speaking about this is speaking in ‘I statements’ instead of speaking in ‘you statements’. So, for example, if you have a problem with someone and you need to assert that you’ve got that problem, you don’t tell them, ‘you’re being rude’ or, ‘you’re being snobby’ or, ‘who do you think you are?’ Those are ‘you statements’; you want to talk about what you need in terms if ‘I’. ‘I need you to stop doing this’ or, ‘I feel embarrassed when you hurt my feelings in this way.’ When you speak in terms of you, it tends to create hurt feelings, anger, and defensiveness when –

LISA: When you accuse somebody.

RACHEL: Or if somebody feels accused. Right. So –

LISA: So they will respond with their hackles up, and they’ll be more aggressive again.

RACHEL: But here’s the problem with assertiveness versus aggressiveness: a lot of people who think they’re being assertive, are often perceived as being aggressive. And that’s a specific problem for girls and women because we’re supposed to be nice, and what being nice means, oftentimes, is not having any needs. So any need that you have is sometimes perceived as being hurtful, and I think that’s one of the biggest conundrums in raising a girl, is how do you explain that? That you have the right to be assertive, but sometimes even when you know you’re not being mean, other people will think you’re mean.

LISA: So would we even have this discussion if we were talking about boys?

RACHEL: I’ll explain it to you this way: on a sports team, girls sports team, girls are running around on the field, the pressure’s on, there’s a big game, and they need to yell at each other in order to get the ball, ask for the ball, ask for help. There are a lot of girls on that field who, when they are yelled at, in the sport environment by another girl, are going to freak out and have their feelings hurt. And that’s because, to them, any kind of assertiveness feels really scary to them.

LISA: Look, when you’re on a playing field, there’s nature noise, there’s the plane up there, there’s ambient stuff; you have to scream.

RACHEL: Yeah, you know what, you know what I would say? You have to scream, and you just want to think about other people’s emotions as much as you can. If you feel that what you’re about to say could be potentially hurtful, you just want to ask yourself – and this is what you say to a girl – ask yourself, would you be okay if someone said this to you?

LISA: Mmhmm.

RACHEL: And when you figure out exactly how you’d like someone to say something to you, then go ahead and say it to someone else. I think that’s how you know the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness.

LISA: Then let’s talk about the parent’s role in teacher our children, our daughters, to be assertive. Because a lot of mothers, I think, don’t realize that their kid is the aggressive one or the assertive one already.

RACHEL: Yeah. There’s a couple of things that have happened. One is that there are parents, women, who believe that any amount of assertiveness is okay because we’re living in the age of girl power. So you have the right to say what you want, and isn’t that cute because girls never used to speak up and look how assertive my daughter is,

LISA: Uh-huh.

RACHEL: And these women, unfortunately, when they are told of their daughter’s aggressiveness, often respond by saying, well she’s an outspoken girl and don’t try to censor my daughter. I mean, one of the things that’s true of girls is that they are exceptionally socially skilled; particularly the most aggressive ones. So the most aggressive girls, in front of adults, are often the most charming.

LISA: Somehow I’m hoping in my life that those girls reach the peak of their power when they are thirteen and fourteen and fifteen. And then the nice girls who’ve been wounded by them will reach theirs later on.

RACHEL: I, I mean, I hope the same thing, but I think you know, it’s also – another thing that I observe in girls is that the girls that surround the queen bees are sometimes the ones least willing to admit that they have power. So, for example, if you walk into a group of girls, and you say, is there popularity at this school? The girls who say no, we’re all friends, are the ones who are popular because they’re either unwilling to admit that they’re privileged or they’re just not recognizing it. And it’s often true that people that have the most power are unaware that they do. And, therefore, are not in a position to help the people that are less privileged. I’m not trying to let them off, but it’s interesting how there’s this refusal to see that we’re popular.

LISA: Thank you, Rachel. For howdini.com, I’m Lisa Birnbach.

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meet theexpert
  • Rachel Simmons

    Rachel Simmons Author, Odd Girl Out Rachel Simmons is a best selling author and Founding Director of the Girls Leadership Institute. more about this expert »

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