The Importance of Teaching Your Kids to Be Empathetic and Assertive

by Jill Ceder December 19, 2016

rear view of boy and girl sitting on bench at  field

A boy in my son’s preschool said some nasty comments to him this morning. I knew it was just a power play by an older kid who craves attention, but I became enraged and then sad.

This was not the first time I witnessed children making other kids feel less than, but since the election this type of hurtful language has been validated. It is no surprise that bullying in the aftermath of the election has risen.

Like many, I cried the day following the election. Like many, I felt scared and confused about issues I valued, about rights that would be taken away from myself and others. But even more than those issues, I cried because the election result made me feel that my fellow Americans were laughing in the face of my parenting values; spitting in the face of the thousands of parents who dedicate so much time and energy raising kids with empathy, compassion, resilience, and confidence. America is not just divided on politics, we're divided on how we want to raise our children – the future of this country.

The morning after Trump’s win, I posted this message on Facebook: “We are still the teachers to our children. The ones who model right and wrong, show them how to treat others, and how to be empathetic. We may need to try a little harder now.”

So how do we teach our kids about right and wrong? How do we teach them to be empathetic but also to stand up to mean kids?

Model respect and compassion in your home

Children who grow up in loving, respectful environments are less likely to be bullied or become bullies. Treat your child with respect starting at a young age so they will learn that treating people with respect garners respect. Respected children know when someone is treating them badly and will not accept it. Using power or control over your child will show them that bullying is the best way for them to get what they want from others.

Teach assertive behavior

When kids are young, parents need to provide the language that they'll use in a variety of situations. Assertiveness is no exception. Teach your child to be assertive by using language that shows your kids that they can get their needs met in a respectful manner. If another child is doing something your child doesn't like, show them how to be assertive by encouraging them to say:

“I do not like when you call me that name.”

“It is not okay to put your hands on my body.”

“Please stop doing that now.”

Teach your child how to remain calm in difficult situations by taking deep breaths. Empower her to either make an assertive statement and walk away, or ignore the bullying altogether.

Model confidence

Children are much more observant than we think. Your child is watching your every move and learning from you. For both you and your child’s sake, find ways to comfortably assert yourself in situations where someone may be treating you in a way you do not like. Show your child that you're confident. Also, watch what you say in front of your child because they are modeling both your words and actions.

Teach and help develop basic social skills

Social skills may not come naturally to every child so it is important for parents to teach them. Role play or act out scenes that your child tells you she has witnessed or been a part of. Teach your child how to introduce themselves and ask to join a game or a group of kids playing. If your child lacks social skills and you're not sure how to teach them, you may want to find social skills groups through school or a therapy group.

Pay attention and stay connected

Listen to what your child is telling you through their verbal and non-verbal communication. It's scary – and sometimes embarrassing – for kids to talk to their parents about bullies, so read between the lines. Be observant of changing behaviors and connect with your child regularly so he feels comfortable talking to you about hard stuff.

Discuss bullying

Even preschoolers need to know what bullying is and what to look for. Encourage your child to tell an adult if they or anyone around them is being spoken to negatively or treated badly. Have a discussion with your child about right and wrong and encourage him to speak up if another child is making him feel badly.

Intervene if necessary

Your job is to protect your child. That means calling a teacher or principal or speaking to the other child’s parent if necessary. Send the message to your child that she is not alone and you support her.

What NOT to do

  • Make excuses for the bully or take their side. It takes a lot of courage for your child to tell you they feel bad so make sure your reaction is supportive.
  • Blow off your child’s feelings. Your child may choose to ignore the bully’s behavior but as the parent, you should never ignore your child’s hurt feelings.
  • Tell your child to fight back physically. Standing up for yourself with an assertive statement and using physical violence are two very different things.

I hope my son sees a future where love wins out over hate. For now, I will instill in my son that empathy, compassion, and respect signify strength and bravery far more than aggression and nasty words. Unfortunately, those character traits might not get you to the White House.

Jill Ceder


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