How do you interact with people in the world? How do your children interact with peers, family members, teachers, and others? Sometimes a person’s communication style reflects underlying anxiety and self-esteem issues, and can increase or decrease anxiety.

While there are many labels that can be put on a person’s interactional style, we are going to focus on three main ones:  passive, aggressive, and assertive.  Keep in mind, though, that there are other styles (e.g., passive-aggressive) and the experiences leading to those interaction styles can vary from person to person.  As you read this article, you will learn about the benefits of having an assertive communication style.  This style combines clear communication, understanding and caring about how others might perceive your message, and being respectful of others.

Passive Style

If children present themselves in a passive way to others, they often may hesitate to state their opinion (especially if it’s different from that of another person), they may withdraw rather than engage in a confrontation, and they may defer to others when a decision needs to be made.

If you believe that your child has a passive style, think about whether your child:

  • is just very easy going and likes to “go with the flow” but is comfortable expressing his own opinion when it’s important to do so (in which case you may just want to make your child aware of this style and teach them to recognize when speaking up is helpful);
  • is shy and does not, therefore, speak up with many people, but can be clear about her opinions and deal with conflicts with trusted family members or close friends. In this case, your child may have the skills for expressing opinions but may need help with how to overcome shyness.
  • doubts herself and doesn’t speak up because she doesn’t feel that others will truly listen to her (in which case, her self-doubts need to be addressed in addition to possibly needing to learn some assertiveness skills);
  • has the language skills for knowing how to speak up (if not, try giving specific sentences that might be useful in expressing requests).

There can be many reasons why a child has a passive style.  Some children feel too nervous to speak up for fear of having to defend their opinion or having to deal with a conflict with someone.  If your child has a passive style (not due to just being easygoing or because of severe anxiety), you may also want to:

  • have a non-confrontational discussion about times when she hasn’t spoken up (e.g., Was it due to not knowing what to say, being afraid to lose a friend, etc.?);
  • while watching a TV show or just as a game, try discussing some situations that kids might find themselves in and talk about what a child might say to be heard (this also may help build the language skills needed to speak up for oneself);
  • if your child doesn’t give an opinion, try to avoid putting him on the spot. Find a quiet time, later, when you both can talk.  Listen, restate what your child shared with you to show that you really paid attention, and then discuss the situation.  You may want to role play how your child can use “I” messages, such as “I feel that I am old enough to have a later bedtime” to express opinions, because this focuses on sharing feelings and stating an opinion calmly.  Remember to compliment your child for sharing viewpoints even though this isn’t always comfortable for children with a passive style.

Aggressive Style

If children present themselves in an aggressive way, they may be demanding, often shouting, or trying to control a situation so that others end up agreeing with their viewpoints.  In extreme situations, these children may be given the label of bullies.  There are numerous reasons why kids may have this style, however.

If your child appears to have an aggressive style, think about whether your child:

  • feels that his opinion is only taken seriously when he is demanding others do what he says (in which case, you may want to talk about, or even role-play, how your child can more calmly and respectfully share opinions and still be heard);
  • realizes that she is not compromising or negotiating if others have a different viewpoint (if your child doesn’t realize this, it’s hard to work on developing these skills, so model examples of how and when to compromise and negotiate);
  • has the language skills to discuss rather than dictate (like above, if not, try giving specific sentences that might be useful in expressing requests);
  • has the emotional skills to manage the frustration of not getting her way (if she does not, you may want to talk with the teacher, pediatrician, or a mental health professional about ways to help your child to modulate moods, even when upset).

Sometimes children present an aggressive style simply because they don’t have the tools to communicate their wishes in a calm and clear way.

If your child has an aggressive style, you can also try:

  • encouraging her to try and see the situation from others’ points of view (for example, talk about how you felt when a person told you what you should do without considering that you may have a different opinion);
  • trying to identify the reasons your child is verbally aggressive and try to find another way to get his needs met;
  • talking about ways to deal with frustration, such as positive self-talk (thinking about strengths and abilities even when not winning an argument), ways to calm down, and ways to start a discussion with you so that you can be his sounding board when upset;
  • talking about the social filter (for example, “it’s okay to feel annoyed but your social reputation might be hurt if you don’t keep some frustration or opinions in check”).

Assertive Style

Some children are assertive.  This means that they are speaking up and sharing their opinions, but are not forcing their beliefs or preferences on others.  Being assertive can be an effective way to express yourself without being overlooked (too passive) or demanding (too aggressive).  Of course, not all assertive children express themselves in an identical manner.  Some are quiet and set up a time to talk with another person.  Some quote research, refer to characters in literature, talk about feelings, use respectful humor, or focus mostly on the conflict.  There is no right way to be assertive as long as your child is:

  • able to express opinions in a clear, concise, manner;
  • respectful of how the particular listener will receive the message (perspective-taking);
  • able to tolerate the fact that others might have different feelings or opinions.

These skills can be challenging for very young children, but assertive skills are something that can generally be taught and practiced. When teaching your child to be assertive, try:

  • modeling assertive behaviors. You may even want to explain to your child that you thought about an aggressive response and a passive response, and why you then decided on the assertive one;
  • complimenting your child when opinions, are expressed calmly and respectfully (even if you disagree);
  • talking about how the speaker and listener might have felt (for example, after an interaction you observed at a restaurant). The goal of this is to help your child develop perspective-taking skills.

All of us develop ways that we are most comfortable with when interacting with others.  If your child is passive or aggressive, first try to find out why.  Once you know the answer to that question, the next step is to coach your child to learn alternative and more adaptive responses (without judging ways as “wrong”).  Being assertive can empower children to share their thoughts and feelings and be heard.  When your child tries to do this, remember to compliment these efforts!

If insecurities, anxiety, or even depression keep your child from thriving and speaking up, it may be time to seek professional guidance.

by Wendy Moss, PhD, ABPP

This Article's Author

Wendy L. Moss, Ph.D., ABPP, FAASP is a clinical as well as a school psychologist. In addition, she is a diplomate in school psychology through the American Board of Professional Psychology and won the Frank Plumeau School Psychologist of the Year Award (2017) through the New York Association of School Psychologists. Dr. Moss authored or co-authored eight books. Books for children focus on how to gain confidence, how to be resilient, ways to navigate through the tween years, ways to handle academic stresses, how to cope with a learning challenge, and ways to cope with a physical disability. She also wrote a book for teachers so that they can better understand their students and, most recently, a book for parents on how to raise self-confident, independent children.