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How Can I help My Teen Be More Assertive?

By March 1, 2015November 19th, 2020Blogs, Dr. Jenny Yip

It’s first helpful to have a basic understanding of communication styles. There are three basic ones: Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive. A more detailed explanation of these communication styles was covered in our last newsletter, and you can read that entry here. An important aspect of communication is the role of non-verbal gestures. It’s not just what you say, but also how you say it. Here are five things you can encourage your teen to pay attention to when trying to be assertive – they make a big difference.

  • Posture – Assume an upright posture with your shoulders kept back. Try not to hunch (too passive) or crouch (too aggressive).
  • Movements & gestures – Be relaxed and fluid, with little muscle tension. Avoid looking lethargic (passive) or making sharp physical gestures (aggressive).
  • Eye gaze – Maintain eye contact, but make sure you break it every once in a while. Make sure not to stare at the floor (passive) or glare directly at the person (aggressive).
  • Facial expressions – Use a calm expression with a little muscle tension. Try to avoid looking apologetic (passive) or angry (aggressive).
  • Voice tone – Use a warm and well-modulated voice. Make sure you’re not too quiet (passive) or too loud (aggressive).

Another aspect of assertive communication is the ability to give constructive feedback in the form of the “compliment sandwich.” There are times when we need to deliver feedback or constructive criticism to a friend, colleague, or family member. When doing so, if you want them to be able to take the feedback in a receptive way, it helps to lead with something positive, then give them the piece of feedback, and then end with another compliment. For instance, “I really enjoyed the beginning of your story, the end was a little rushed for me, but overall it was a great read.” This greatly increases the chances of them actually listening to your feedback.
Practicing being assertive through “live” opportunities can be a great way to rehearse this new skill. One simple way to do this is to make phone calls to local businesses and assertively ask for information. These “in vivo” assertiveness exercises allows teens to practice assertive expression in a relatively safe way (i.e., with strangers over the phone), while building up their skills to be able to be assertive with adults and people in positions of authority. It’s important for teens to remember that when they’re assertive, they will often be told “no” at first. It is alright to ask again in a different way one more time. However, after they get told “no” a second time, then it is time to move on.
This past January, I co-lead RFC’s first assertiveness group for teens. In the group, we covered many of the tips reviewed here, as well as other skills such as expressing one’s opinions and learning to say ‘no’ to unreasonable requests. Interested in having your teen attend? Don’t worry, we’ll be running another group this summer! Email me at and we will email you once we have details. We are also thinking about offering a similar group for adults. Email if this is something you might be interested in attending.