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Building assertiveness in young adults: Here's what to know

As your young adult moves through their social and professional lives, practicing assertiveness becomes more important.
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Navigating the various ups and downs of life is a big part of getting older, and navigating these situations while staying true to oneself takes practice and skill. As your young adult moves through their social and professional lives, practicing assertiveness becomes more and more important when working through complicated situations and developing their own identity. You can’t be there to stand up for your kid in every situation, nor should you. Your young adult must learn to stand up for him or herself. But there are ways you can help to support them in building their assertiveness.

What is assertiveness?

Assertiveness is a communication skill that can be learned. Using assertive verbal and body language and tone of voice shows a type of confidence that clearly expresses one’s wants, needs, feelings, and values without hurting or dismissing others. Being assertive helps us in communicating with others while being socially aware of our interactions. “It enables us to set personal boundaries about what we are, what we value, and what is unacceptable to us,” education consultant Jennifer Miller says. It is most useful to be assertive in situations involving conflict, but it is also helpful in many other types of scenarios.

Why is it important for my young adult?

Your young adult may have already practiced assertiveness when dealing with peers as a teen. Peer pressure, bullying, bossy friends; these social challenges were all building blocks for your kids as they grew more socially aware. Assertiveness only becomes more important as they get older. Supporting your young adult in building assertiveness will help them identify their social strengths, build confidence, advocate for themselves, and solidify their identity.

Assertiveness is important for both social and professional situations. After graduating from high school, teens face many unique changes and challenges. Peer pressure doesn’t go away in college or work settings. Being assertive can help them keep a sense of self in their social interactions like forming new friendships, starting their career, and navigating different kinds of relationships.

So…how do I help my young adult become more assertive? Talk about values.

Integrity and ethics are the foundation of assertiveness. As a family, you may have had these conversations in the past, or you may not have. But either way, author and parenting expert Ana Homayoun says, “Don’t assume your kids automatically know your family values. Ongoing conversations are key—it’s never too late to start.” Parent Toolkit student advisor Samia, a current senior in high school, said the best advice her parents ever gave her was “just to be true to yourself...Be real with yourself and have those hard conversations.” Ask your young adult what they value in life; have these values shifted or changed at all over the years? What do you expect of others when you interact with them? How do you interact with someone who has different values than you? “It is important to encourage young adults to reflect and think about what is important to them and what qualities they want to focus on in their lives,” Homayoun says. “I always ask students to identify where and when they feel more energized versus most drained? Encouraging teens and young adults to identify their own values can naturally give them a sense of accomplishment in the little things they do to work towards those values in everyday living.”

Reflect with your kid about whether or not both of your daily choices reflect your values. Making choices is part of assertiveness. Are they going to prioritize hard work, friend loyalty, or political activism? Highlight examples of your own encounters with ethical dilemmas or interacting with people who have different values than you do. For example, you may care a lot about the environment, but find that your apartment building does not recycle. Or you have a coworker who differs politically and continuously makes comments to you about it at work. Some of these situations may cause young adults to question what they stand for and how they want to live. “They could be asking questions of themselves for the first time regarding the values they feel are most important because of their newfound independence,” Miller says. During this time, young adults have to learn to be comfortable with what they are standing for. “There has to be a balance, where you are comfortable with your position but also be able to hear what other people have to say,” licensed mental health counselor Janine Halloran says. When your young adult knows what they stand for, they are much more ready and confident to stand up for themselves.

Point out when your young adult is assertive.

Start by highlighting your young adult’s social strengths, which is where their assertiveness will come out. They may be a generous and loyal friend, or kind to all people and good at listening. Call out these strengths and remind your young adult that these traits are important to hold on to, regardless of the situation.

“It is tough for young adults who are in the process of developing their own identity and sense of self,” Homayoun says. “It can be difficult to be assertive for one point of view or belief system because their own values and beliefs may be shifting and they might not have that view a year from now.” For parents, this is why it's a good time to explain what assertion means. In instances where your kid remains true to himself or herself, point it out! Assertion can be something as small as being kind to someone you do not like or telling your friend that you don’t want to go out on a Friday night because you need some time alone.

You may also notice that your young adult is assertive toward you more often than others. “Instead of receiving ’push back‘ assertions as an invitation to engage in a power struggle, you can appreciate their ability to assert their point of view and know that it can be used as a critical tool in preserving their boundaries and safety among peers,” Miller says. It’s likely that they are very comfortable being themselves around you. Point this out and encourage your young adult to use this same kind of tone and confidence when communicating with peers or other adults.

Be responsive to their assertions.

Take your young adult seriously when they assert themselves. You may not agree with them about everything, but you should acknowledge that they are expressing their thoughts or values. Use this as a time to talk and get to know what your young adult is thinking and feeling. The years after they leave home are big for forming their identity, and sometimes this may look very different than your own expectations for your kid. Do not disregard the very real feelings and opinions they have at this time. If you give them a supportive environment to assert themselves in, they are much more likely to come to you when issues arise.

If you do disagree, talk with them about why and assert yourself and your opinions. Experts say the best way to teach your kid anything is to model it. Your young adult is susceptible to this as well, even if they are no longer living with you. Be respectfully assertive and clearly state your opinions and thoughts when you interact with others, including your kid. If your kid says something you fundamentally disagree with, tell them and explain why you disagree in a respectful way. “If they slip into disrespectful language, you might respond in ways that show them how they can disagree using respectful language,” Miller says. Do not tell them they are wrong or yell at them; this does not model assertiveness and could push them away. When they see how you approach conflict, especially towards them, they are more likely to imitate the behavior. This is good practice for them as well in a safe and loving environment because they know you will be there for them no matter what.

Don’t solve their problems, but reflect with them.

As your kid gets older, your role as a parent shifts towards being more supportive and less directive. When they come to you with problems, help them establish their own assertiveness by reflecting on the experience with them and asking them questions. Advise, do not tell. Ask open-ended questions like: How did that make you feel? What could you have said when your friend got mad at you? You can’t tell them how to be assertive, but you can encourage them to think about how different situations come across in social interactions.

Being assertive can be a challenging skill to grasp, especially for those who do not like conflict. But it is the foundation of social awareness and will help your young adult in all of their social interactions. It will also help them figure out who they are and what they value in this crazy thing called life. As the saying goes, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”