by Dr. Jocelyn Markowicz, PhD, Psychologist in San Diego, CA
At the 2021 Presidential Inauguration, Amanda Gorman, a poet and activist, performed her poem “The Hill We Climb.” She shared these powerful words: “When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” This line illuminated a shade that looms over our young girls, cloaking their voices within the darkness of unassertiveness. While Gorman’s performance spoke powerfully across a vast sea of change needed, her presence and assertiveness courageously inspired people all over the world to stand in the light of assertive power. How can we teach young girls to be more assertive despite their fear of being viewed as aggressive?
Why Female Assertiveness Is Complicated
Research supports the benefits of individuals sharing their authentic thoughts and feelings in an assertive way (Eslami, Rabiei, Mohammad, Hamidizadeh, & Masoudi, 2016). Research also highlights the consequences women have faced when their assertiveness was incorrectly viewed as aggressiveness (Maloney & Moore, 2019). Considering the challenges faced when a woman embraces her assertive power, parents have seemingly been hesitant to encourage their daughters to be unabashedly assertive.
Why and How to Nurture Assertiveness in Girls
Why must there be a collective drive to teach young girls to be assertive? First, most people can admit that it is what they do not say that leads to increased anxiety, depression, and general dissatisfaction. While there can be consequences to being assertive or aggressive, people generally feel empowered after being brave enough to share their truth. How can you stay on the healthy side of authentic communication without crossing the line into perceived aggressiveness? How can you develop assertiveness in the face of real bias against assertive women? Young girls need help developing the power of their assertive voice and navigating the challenges that may result. Here are general behavioral TIPs to help.
To be an effective communicator, one must first have self-awareness. Is the young girl in your life someone who gets loud when she is excited about a topic of discussion? Is her voice is barely audible when she talks about something meaningful? Does it quaver when she discusses her honest feelings? If you are able to answer any of these questions, then you are somewhat aware of her natural way of communicating. Now, you must help her develop awareness of how changes in her tone may be affected by her feelings and may, in turn, affect her listener.
When the brain experiences intense emotions, it does not process information as accurately as it does in a calmer state. The right tone matters, especially in moments of high emotional intensity. The right tone can deescalate a situation and allow the receiver of communication to process the information better and appraise the speaker more favorably (Helfrich & Weidenbecher, 2011). The wrong tone of voice can change the way the receiver codes the message as assertive or aggressive. An assertive tone can be passionate and intense with an air of calmness. An aggressive tone can also be passionate and intense, but typically has an air of uncertainty. An aggressive tone creates negative feelings in the receiver. A calm tone can create positive feelings, which means the message can be heard more clearly.
Information About the Message Receiver
It is important to teach young girls how to know their audience. Help them think about who will be listening to what they have to say. Strong communicators can effectively speak to someone with a doctorate or someone who has a third-grade education. You can’t do that without awareness of the receiver’s capacity to receive and absorb the message. You may have something valuable to say, but if you deliver it in the wrong tone and with ineffective language, your message will not achieve the desired outcome. Knowing how to adjust based on your audience is a key skill for communicating effectively.
Our young girls need feedback. They need help understanding how their communication is received by their audience. Feedback can help them strengthen positive communication skills and weaken any negative communication delivery methods.
Does the young girl in your life take up space when she is communicating, or does she get smaller? Does she make wild movements with her hands or hid them behind her back when she’s trying to assert herself? Behavioral positions cause natural reactions. Our brains decide if a person’s posturing is threatening or soothing. Thus, it is helpful to teach young girls to be aware of how their bodies respond when they are trying to communicate their authentic thoughts, and how their physical reactions might affect various audiences. A girl may have a lovely, impassioned message that could come across as aggressive to someone else based on their posture. While perceptions of posturing are fraught with bias, knowing how others might perceive her behavior can help young girls to develop flexibility and intention in their physical movements based on their audience.
Teaching the young girl in your life these behavioral TIPs is a start to helping her develop more lifelong assertiveness. It’s also important to expose her to assertive women.
Stock up on Books
Make sure to surround the young girl in your life with examples of women who have accomplished many things. I would invite you to devote a shelf in the home to fill with books about a variety of girls and women who have assertively accomplished their goals. Keep filling shelves up with wonderful stories of how important girls and women are in the world. Self-confidence inspires assertiveness. Also, be sure to include books by child and adult female authors who were assertive enough to write and publish their ideas. Here are some book recommendations:
Target Conditions That Negatively Impact Assertiveness
As you are teaching the young girl in your life to practice assertive communication and filling up her mind with wonderful examples of assertiveness, you must also actively work to target conditions that may negatively impact her assertive communication progress. In order for her to experience the true power of her assertiveness, she’ll need your help to reduce anticipatory anxiety or behavioral-skill deficits associated with her unassertiveness (Speed, Goldstein, & Golfried, 2017). Untreated anxiety and depression are but two conditions that can impact a young girl’s confidence to assertively communicate her thoughts.
Therapy is a great resource she may utilize to discuss challenges to her assertiveness and practice specific skills. Assertiveness training, which can be conducted in therapy, decreases anxiety, stress, and depression (Eslami, Rabiei, Mohammad, Hamidizadeh, & Masoudi, 2016). According to Eslami et al. (2016), unassertive behaviors are obstacles that strongly correlated with fears, worries, social anxieties, and various internal aggressions. An assertive person can create closer relationships with others, express a wide range of emotions without feeling guilty, stressful, or anxious or violating the rights of others. Young girls can develop into assertive women who change the world. As Amanda Gorman stated at the inauguration, ‘If only we’re brave enough to be it.’ We owe it to the young girls in our lives to help them to Be the It called an assertive communicator.
If the young girl in your life might benefit from therapy, start looking at options with our child therapist search. If you’re reading this and thinking you might need to work on yourself before you’ll really be ready to nurture assertiveness in someone else, begin your search for a therapist near you in our directory.
Read the full text of Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem ‘The Hill We Climb’. (2021, January 20). Retrieved April 22, 2021, from https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/20/amanda-gormans-inaugural-poem-the-hill-we-climb-full-text.html
Eslami, A.A., Rabiei,L, Mohammad, S.A., Hamidizadeh, S., and Masoudi, R. (2016). The Effectiveness of Assertiveness Training on the Levels of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression of High School Students. Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal. Jan; 18(1): e21096.
Helfrich, Hede & Weidenbecher, Philipp. (2011). Impact of Voice Pitch on Text Memory. Swiss Journal of Psychology. 70. 85-93. 10.1024/1421-0185/a000042.
Maloney, M. E., & Moore, P. (2019). From aggressive to assertive. International journal of women’s dermatology, 6(1), 46–49. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijwd.2019.09.006
Speed, B. C., Goldstein, B. L., & Goldfried, M. R. (2017). Assertiveness training: A forgotten evidence-based treatment. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. https://doi.org/10.1111/cpsp.12216
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