Aggression leads to more social problems over the long term. Parents.com's "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says teaching children the power of assertiveness skills can protect them from bullying and help them build stronger, healthier social relationships now and in their future.

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An illustration of two boys and their mom.
Credit: Kailey Whitman.

Kudos to you for realizing how critical this skill is for your child's present and future. This age group has a lot of social learning to do, but the great news is they have young brains ripe for absorbing what you have to teach. You are off to a positive start with how closely you are observing him and being clear with your family's values around speaking up and staying strong.

Setting the Social Stage

Your son falls on the later cusp of what developmental experts call "early childhood." This stage involves rapid fire brain changes across all types of abilities, including emotional regulation, understanding social interactions, and communication skills (like more words and less biting to express themselves). As each child starts to figure out the joy of having friends, they also realize the pain of conflict (sometimes literally, like with a punch to the gut!). How each child responds to this conflict, however, depends on many factors such as their individual personality and temperament, and adult influence.

It sounds like you are concerned that your son seemed unsure of how to respond to his cousin after being hit. His reaction suggests to me that he has a good grasp on emotion regulation since he didn't punch him right back! I know many children in this age group who would have gone on the attack without a second's thought to take a breath and let their mother know they have been hit (scene of my children during sibling battles). Although your son was clearly upset, he showed an ability to communicate with you in the heat of the moment. His first response of looking to you also indicates he sees you as a source of comfort and guidance.

Should He Hit Back or Not?

Which is where your question comes in—how do you guide him? I remember once spying my preschool-age daughter standing next to a much taller, bigger friend in class who pushed her. I would never have told my sweet, innocent child, "push her back," but when I saw my daughter do just that (so hard, the girl lost her balance), I was proud of how she stood up for herself.

I know there are parents out there who would advise their children to fight back if ever pushed or hit by another child. I realize there are some neighborhoods where showing toughness is considered a way to stay protected, and this parenting response helps their child stay safe. I do not know if this is the case for you, but generally, children do better in the long-term socially with less aggressive behaviors, so it's worth coaching other ways for them to respond.

Practice Being Assertive Over Passive or Aggressive

Assertiveness is considered a central feature of effective social skills, especially when compared to two common types of responses to social conflict: passive and aggressive. According to research on social skills in childhood, building up assertiveness will not only protect your son from bullying behaviors but will likely increase his confidence and overall self-esteem, ultimately contributing to stronger social relationships as he gets older. Passive responses lead to problems with confidence and self-esteem; aggressive responses have been linked to becoming bullies, and being rejected by peers.

Key ingredients for expressing oneself assertively rather than passively or aggressively include staying calm but clear with a commanding voice (not yelling). You can practice this with your son at home through role-plays, coaching him to find that balance. Use his power of not punching right back to teach him how to stop and think before responding next time.

Some steps he can learn:

  1. Stop: Take a deep breath to calm down before saying anything.
  2. Think: Count to 5 before responding. Think about how you feel and what you want to say.
  3. Respond: Say calmly but clearly, "That really hurt. I'm not going to want to play with you if you hit me."

Some young children need more practice and development of self-regulation before they can use this method, but for children who are ready, it's a skill that goes a long way toward building up assertiveness. At this age, children need more direction and reminders about what to do, and adults role modeling social skills can be a key influence.

As they become older, however, school-age children do benefit more from negotiating these social conflicts more independently, unless safety or bullying is a concern. It's also important to note that bullying differs from regular conflict or even teasing; bullying involves a pattern of targeting a child deemed as weaker in some respect (eg, size, popularity), rather than one fight or series of conflicts with a flip-flopping power dynamic.

Responding to Bullies

You mention your concern about what your son does if someone bullies him. If his experience does match the above definition of bullying, he needs adult intervention. You can speak to the school about how to involve teachers and other staff (maybe recess supervisors) to monitor the situation and intervene with the bully to stop the behavior. Although being more assertive in general may help protect your son from being targeted by a bully, the power to stop the bullying exceeds his abilities at this age.

The Bottom Line

Assertiveness comes more naturally to some children than others, but the research in social skill development shows that assertiveness skills are teachable. Start with your child's social strengths, and build from there by teaching through role-plays at home, where he feels safe to practice new skills. Before you know it, he won't look twice at you when there's a social problem because he will know what to do and say, and maybe teach his younger cousin a few things in the process.

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Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.