8 Little Ways to Encourage Your Child to Speak Their Mind
Hoping to raise an assertive kid who isn't shy to use their voice? Experts offer small ways to help build your child's confidence so they feel empowered to speak their mind.
Teaching your child to have a voice and be assertive is an important life skill that may benefit their future. Experts say assertiveness skills can help your child's relationships—whether they be romantic ones or friendships, in work or school settings, or simply with themselves.
"Ultimately, this will help your child in every area of their life," says Mia Rosenberg, LCSW, a psychotherapist and owner of Upsider Therapy in New York. "Whether it is saying no when they do not want to do something or speaking up when they feel they have something important to share, building assertiveness skills will allow your child the strength to be able to feel heard and build confidence as they do so."
Experts weigh in on simple ways parents can go about helping their kids pick up these skills and feel empowered to share their voice as they grow.
Let Your Child Answer for Themselves
Whether it's greeting a friend you cross paths with on the street or ordering their own meal in a restaurant, let your child speak for themselves. "Parents want to make life easy for their children, especially when they are shy, so they answer for them," says Marcie Beigel, BCBA-D, behavior specialist and founder of Behavior and Beyond in New York, where she provides individual therapy, parenting classes, and training. "Stopping this habit from the parent brings forward power and importance of the child's voice and encourages them to use it in new and varied situations."
Carve Out Time for Thoughtful Discussions
Create time each day to have thoughtful conversations with your kids. "Perhaps during meals or on a family walk, talk to your kids about topics that matter to your family and ask them what they think and wait for them to answer," says Dr. Beigel. Be curious about their thoughts. She suggests asking questions like: "Where did you learn that?" and "How did you come up with that thought?" or saying, "Interesting, tell me more."
Rosenberg agrees, adding that it's important to ask your child open-ended questions about the topics they bring up, even if they show resistance. Rather than just saying something along the lines of, "Wow, that's cool," try to dig a little deeper and ask them a question about what they are saying. You can use statements like, "I wonder why..." or "I have noticed that..." This allows your kid to think and begin to open up a bit more, advises Rosenberg.
Try Not to Judge Them
It's critical to leave judgment behind as much as possible. Rosenberg says children carefully decide when they are going to bring up topics that are hard, and when they feel they are being judged, they may shut down. "It is important that when children do try to bring up a topic, parents are able to listen without being judgmental," says Rosenberg. "This means not asking questions that may provoke the child to be on the defense or say, 'Never mind.'"
If there is a moment in which your child does redact their statement, give it a moment and then acknowledge that you understand it can be hard to talk about certain things. "Children will feel validated and may then feel like they can share what is on their mind," she adds.
Give Your Child Choices Early On
Strawberries or blueberries? Which book before bed? What color winter coat to wear? These may seem like simple choices, but they can make a big impact. "Even these types of choices will help young children get used to choosing and speaking up for what they want," says Kathryn Ely, J.D., a certified counselor and founder of Empower Counseling & Coaching in Birmingham, Alabama.
Avoid Labeling Your Child
Labeling kids or placing them into specific categories can hinder their confidence in big ways. "Children easily adapt the identity handed down to them by their parents, which can make it more difficult for a child or adolescent to find their voice and use it," says Ely.
Be supportive as they try and find their way and avoid comparing siblings. "Children really hang on to comments that parents think nothing of making, like calling one of your children 'the smart one' and the other child 'the funny one,'" explains Ely. "Instead, it would be much more helpful if the parent just complimented the child as doing something that was smart or saying something that was funny." That leaves each child open to growth and change instead of living up to and identifying with a label, she adds.
Model by Example
Use random moments with your child to model assertiveness with others in your life. "Modeling by example is a great way to help show your child that it is OK to speak up and be assertive without feeling like you are leaving with hurt feelings," says Rosenberg. How can you do this? "Take an opportunity to tell someone—in front of your child—that you are having a different opinion while still respecting theirs," advises Rosenberg.
Another impactful way is to share your own past experiences with your kid, especially when you notice they are going through something similar. "This can be a validating exercise for children to hear that their parent went through something very similar," says Rosenberg. Parents can lead with a statement such as, "Did I ever tell you about the time that I went through something really similar?" or "I actually totally get what you are going through because something very similar happened to me."
It can be helpful to discuss how you handled a particular situation and also discuss anything you could have done differently, suggests Rosenberg. "This allows your child to see that you are someone who was able to overcome that obstacle and it can give them the confidence that they will get through it, too."
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Help Them Strengthen Their Opinions
Using trusted resources, teach and show your child how to do research on any opinions they may have. "If your kiddo expresses that they think a vegetarian diet is the best way to go, you can research trusted websites together about vegetarian diets for kids," says Anamara Ritt-Olson, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor in the online master of public health program at the University of Southern California. Then, opt to discuss different diets and get a doctor's opinion, too. "This way you thought about their opinion, your opinion, and got an expert opinion to discuss," adds Dr. Ritt-Olson.
Having information to back up an opinion takes a feeling and transforms it into an informed thought, helping kids to become more assertive. "Evidence, proof, and facts are often more persuasive," says Dr. Ritt-Olson. "Looking at feelings and thinking critically to develop your opinion can help with the development of executive cognitive functioning—the ability to make reasoned decisions." Research shows good executive functioning comes with many benefits to boot, including lifelong achievement, quality of life, and health.
Encourage Change Through Actions
Discuss how actions like volunteering and neighborhood cleanups can affect the community and the world—and then find ways to actively participate, even if it's virtually during the pandemic. When your child participates in a cause they are interested in or support, they understand the power of action and taking a stand. "Opinions count," says Dr. Ritt-Olson, "and when you act on them, they can have a real effect."