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Teaching our children “empathetic assertiveness”


In recent years there have been a lot of articles about the importance of teaching children empathy. As a psychotherapist (and a mom) who specializes in relationships, I could not agree more. I am hopeful that the emphasis on empathy will help children become happier people with more fulfilling relationships. On a larger scale, I hope a focus on empathy will make the world a better and more compassionate place.

However, I also believe that teaching our children assertiveness is just as important as teaching empathy. I like to call the balance of being a kind and empathic person while also being a person that is firm, self-assured and confident, “empathic assertiveness.” Empathic assertiveness means that we respect others and can see their perspective, but at the same time we’re firm in our boundaries and are confident in how we implement them.

In my practice, I often see confusion of how empathy and assertiveness can harmoniously work together. I see parents who appreciate empathy but have apprehension towards it and I also see people who act out of empathy but often to their own detriment. Because of this, I have come to realize that empathy is often thought of as being mutually exclusive from assertiveness.

The parents I see with an apprehension of empathy usually have a fear of the old cliché that “kindness is weakness.” A well intentioned fear of a parent is that if their child is too empathic they may be  taken advantage of. This can be a valid concern because while compassion and empathy are instrumental to positive and deep relationships, the tendency to over-identify with others may open the door for people to take advantage or push and cross boundaries.

I have seen anxious people do things that make them uncomfortable because of guilt. I have seen people let others push and bulldoze their boundaries because they felt bad about saying “no” to someone or didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Again, while it is of the utmost importance to be able to take the perspective of another and see where they are coming from, it should not go too far to the point that we can’t speak up for ourselves, say no, or set appropriate personal boundaries.

As a parent, teaching the balance of empathy and assertiveness may feel tricky. Modeling your own empathic assertiveness in situations at home and outside of the home is a great way for children to learn how to communicate well with others in a way that is respectful to themselves and others, especially later on in life with the important figures in their lives: colleagues, friends, romantic partners and family members. Positive relationships with others are critical in professional and personal success in life.

There are also always great opportunities for teaching moments where you can emphasize that there is an importance to be compassionate of others and compassionate to ourselves. Questions like, “How do you think that made that person feel?” and “How did you feel about that?” help open the door for children to understand that others’ feelings are valid and so are their own. For children who don’t yet understand their own feelings, it’s good to help them label their feelings: “You felt very sad when Bobby took your toy and you cried.” As children get older and go through life, their ability to navigate these situations on their own and finding the balance between self-care and care of others (often the pendulum shifts and they can’t always be in perfect balance) will grow stronger.

Here are some suggestions for teaching or modeling empathic assertiveness whenever possible:

  • Saying “no” to something that makes you uncomfortable does not mean you are rude or mean. Being rude means that you deliberately say or do something that is hurtful to another person. Saying no to respect yourself is not disrespecting someone else.

[Things my teen still has to learn]

  • You do not always have to explain yourself when you don’t want to do something. Sometimes saying “no” is enough.
  • In important relationships, listen to others and validate the parts of their perspective that make sense to you but also make sure that you are in relationships where you are being heard in the same way.
  • In relationships and friendships, a constructive conversation is one where both parties feel heard and work to compromise to a point where everyone is comfortable that their needs are being met.
  • You can speak up for yourself and still be kind. For example, if you’re at a restaurant and you are overcharged on your bill, you can ask to have the problem fixed in a nice way. “I appear to have been overcharged on this bill. Can you please take a look at it and make the adjustments as necessary? Thank you so much!”
  • If you disagree with someone in your home in front of your child(ren) you can respectfully work through the confrontation by not raising your voice or getting defensive and validating their perspective before stating your own. For example, “I can understand why you get upset when I don’t take out the garbage. However, I was incredibly overwhelmed and busy today and it slipped my mind. If you could gently remind me to do that next time, it would be helpful and I’d feel more inclined to do it.”
  • Forgiveness means that you don’t hold anger, bitterness or resentment towards someone. However, that doesn’t mean you need to keep people in your life who have hurt you. You can forgive people and keep them at arm’s length or not have them in your life at all.

Derhally is a psychotherapist specializing in anxiety and Imago relationship theory at the Imago Center in Washington DC. She has a toddler and a newborn.

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