How to Help Your Over-Compliant Child Get a Voice (and Stand Her Ground)

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Got a kid who can’t—or won’t—assert herself around others? We asked pros how to help level the playing field. Check out what they had to say.

A kid who puts herself last may need a confidence boost and assertiveness training. Here are some ideas.

I suspect my super-agreeable kid lets her friends take advantage of her. How can I tell if I’m right?

Observe your child in social settings, or ask her directly if she feels she holds her own around friends and classmates, say our experts. Find out what happens when she claims a seat on the bus or in the cafeteria. Does she just sit down—or does she move to make room for another child? Who decides what to do at recess? Is she ever the first in line? Be a sleuth: Drive by the bus stop or playground and watch the action. 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, recalls one dad who volunteered to go on a school field trip with his child to see how his son acted around other kids.

Short of trailing my child, or grilling him for answers, how can I find out if he’s ok?

Step back and let your child do the talking. When you encourage your child to speak for himself, he builds self-reliance and social skills. “With each passing moment, your child is getting older and more mature,” says Kristin Buss, Ph.D., Professor of Developmental Psychology at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, PA. “The parent’s job is to slowly back off so that their children can become who they’re meant to become.” By empowering your child to navigate his own problems with your support, he’ll gain confidence in his ability to assert himself. “Kids need to figure things out for themselves with parents’ support and guidance,” says Dr. Buss. “There has to be some parental trust that it will work itself out.”

OK, but what if my child is, well, a patsy? What should I do then?

Encourage your child to use assertive language, speak in audible tones, and make eye contact—all skills that are easy to practice at home. Simple strategies can go a long way. “Teach kids to express ‘I’ phrases—for example, I feel, I want, I need,” 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. “Role model and role-play with kids to set them up for success.”

Maybe I’ve hovered too much and not helped my child develop?

Well, if you have, try doling out responsibility—and let your child complete the tasks herself. Kids may complain about chores, but entrusting them with responsibilities helps them develop confidence in their abilities and decision-making skills. For example, back off while your child tries to figure out how to vacuum or load the dishwasher. Says Dr. Buss, “This will help her to develop the sense of empowerment” that all kids need.

And if he still won’t voice his needs and wants, what should we try next?

That’s easy: make it fun. Tap into books, TV, videos, and games. Ms. Whitson recommends The Invisible Boy, a book by Trudy Ludwig. “It’s a great story about a little boy who disappears into the woodwork; through the story he finds his voice and comes alive,” she says. Use screens to make your points. Dr. Borba suggests: “For example, say, ‘Look at the girl on this show—she just walked up and said hi and now she has a new friend!’” Another creative—and unconventional—tip: teach young kids to settle disputes by using low-pressure games, like rock-paper-scissors or eenie-meenie-miney-mo. “They’re simple games that teach collaboration skills,” Dr. Borba adds.

What if my child needs more support—in school or on the playground?

Recruit support from teachers, coaches, and Scout leaders—and then give your child opportunities to shine. “Share your concerns and ask them to find ways to encourage your child’s voice, such as prompting her to answer a question, even if she doesn’t raise her hand all the time,” says Ms. Whitson. Just make sure to clue in supportive adults in a discreet way that doesn’t embarrass your youngster. “You always want to preserve your child’s dignity,” says Dr. Borba. “When children have an opportunity to shine, they feel they have self-worth and value,” explains Ms. Whitson. “And when kids are confident, they tend to be less passive.”

Got any last-minute tips to help us help him?

Model the behavior you want to inspire. Kids learn from what they see, and may pick up passive parental behaviors—or respond to domineering parental behavior by becoming more passive. “Parents should allow their kids to disagree with them, as long as it’s done in a respectful way,” says Ms. Whitson. “We want kids to have their own voice and personality—and to be able to stand up for themselves and others.”