Teaching Assertiveness to Children with Social Anxiety

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Oftentimes, parents, educators, and therapists teach anxious children social skills, such as assertiveness. Assertiveness skills are used to negotiate conflict or to ask someone else to do something differently. For example, an assertive 12 year-old girl may ask a peer to stop speaking negatively about a friend by saying something like, “Let’s not talk about it anymore. It’s none of our business.” Research has found that children with social anxiety are likely to struggle in terms of effective social interactions with peers. They may have difficulty asking for what they need, or speaking up when others are bothering them. Peers are also less likely to respond positively to their efforts.

When teaching the socially anxious child assertiveness, it is important to plan ahead for what to do if his/her assertiveness is not well received, angers someone, or hurts someone’s feelings. If s/he receives criticism and anger at the time s/he is learning to be assertive, it can increase his/her stress, thereby making it more difficult for him/her to use assertive communication in the future. For example, if in the earlier example, the peer responded with, “Why do you care? Stop being so lame,” the anxious child may have been surprised, scared, or unsure of how to respond.

So what can a parent do to help?

Help set your child up for success rather than failure.

Try to identify easy situations to practice assertiveness first, and slowly progress to more difficult ones. Praise the child, and reinforce his/her efforts.

Prepare your child for difficulty and problem-solve what they could do if that happens.

Don’t assume that the other person will respond in a kind or sensitive way. Role play and model the ability to cope with challenge and frustration, as well as the assertiveness skills.

Remind your child that she can only control what she does, and not what others think or do. She can choose to use good self-care, and make healthy friendships.

Model healthy friendships and demonstrate how supportive friends behave.

Talk to them about what makes relationships healthy, as well as how to distance from unhealthy ones in a kind way.


  • Spence, S H.; Donovan, C.; Brechman-Toussaint, M. (1999.) Social skills, social outcomes, and cognitive features of childhood social phobia., Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol 108(2).


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