SMART ANSWERS TO PARENTS’ TOUGHEST QUESTIONS

IS MY CHILD A PATSY?

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We asked experts why some kids find it hard to stand up for themselves. Here’s what they had to say.
Want to know if your compliant kid is too submissive around others? Read on to find out.

We're thrilled to have an agreeable, well-behaved, cooperative child, but we worry that other kids are going to take advantage of him. Should we be concerned?

That depends on the child, according to our experts. Kindness, consideration, flexibility, a our nd a willingness to share, are positive character traits, says Signe Whitson, C-SSW, a school counselor in Lehigh Valley, PA, who runs workshops on bullying prevention, crisis intervention and helping kids manage anger. However, these behaviors could be a problem if a child is overly deferential, a pushover for other children, and not getting his needs met at home or school. “Some children who are passive may be hesitant to express anger or other troubling emotions,” says Whitson. Kids who yield to other children may not get what they want or need—or they may feel that what they think isn’t worth expressing.

Wait, we've always been attentive. Why on earth would our child think that what he says doesn't matter?

One possibility is overparenting, says Michele Borba, Ed.D., an educational psychologist in Palm Springs, CA, and author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. And that can happen even when parents are well intentioned. Borba says research shows that when parents hover, or when they talk over or for their child, the child may become more dependent on the parent—and, possibly, less assertive. Parents may be trying to help, but the child hears a different message. Let’s say you let your child skip a friend’s birthday party because she’s expressed anxiety about going. “Over time, the child thinks she should be anxious, because Mom and Dad are stepping in and helping,” adds Kristin Buss, Ph.D., professor of developmental psychology at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, PA.

But isn't having a more reserved personality an isssue too?

Yes, say experts. Some kids are just born with a tendency to be mellower, so you could be looking at something as simple—or as complex—as nature versus nurture. But others become passive in response to interactions they have day-to-day, and overt or subtle messages at home. “If a child’s voice doesn’t matter—or if he lives with others whose wants and needs are overbearing—he learns that it’s better to hold things in,” Whitson says.

So what are we suppposed to do? We have few arguments and little resistance from him at home.

Kids who shy away from disagreement may make life at home more harmonious, but this can hamper a child’s ability to stick up for herself at school, on the playground, or with friends. “Kids who are passive can be very well liked by their teacher because they tend to be very compliant, do what they’re told, and rarely argue,” says Whitson. “But passive people tend to get into a pattern in which they always put other people first, which can lead to squelched feelings and resentment.” Passive behavior also can signal social anxiety. However, when parents cease taking over, kids can begin to advocate for themselves, and their anxiety may dissipate. Dr. Buss advises, “Kids ages 6 to 12 should be learning to do things for themselves." In short, says Dr. Borba, "If you notice your child going from a quiet kid to a sad, quiet kid then you should worry.”

So, are you saying we should intervene?

That also depends on the kid. If the passive behavior doesn’t seem to be negatively impacting your child, and his teacher isn’t concerned, then you may not need to worry, Dr. Buss advises. Of course, you want to help your child survive and thrive, Dr. Borba adds, “but you don’t want to change your child’s temperament.” However, if your child is being bullied at school, contact the school to help ensure your child is in a safe and happy environment. Be proactive in helping your child find his voice. Says Whitson: “We do kids a disservice when we fail to give them skills to speak up for themselves and speak out against unfairness and injustice.”