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How Can I Help My Daughter Stand Up for Herself?

02/04/2015 11:18 am ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015

My 6-year-old daughter won't stand up for herself, even when a "friend" is teasing her and making her cry. She breaks down at the mere thought of asserting herself. I worry about future victimization. Help!

In a recent New York Times article, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant described a television producer's interaction with two young female writers who rarely spoke up during brainstorming meetings. When he asked them why they didn't say more, they invited him to watch what happened when they did. Lo and behold, nearly every time they offered an idea, they were interrupted, shot down, or steamrolled as a male writer took ownership of their suggestion.

The article highlighted the notion that when men in positions of leadership assert themselves, they are viewed as powerful and competent. When women do the same, they risk as being seen as aggressive or worse -- that the word that starts with a b ends with tch.

Girls are socialized to make nice, get along, and for goodness sake, not hurt anyone's feelings! Boys, on the other hand, are encouraged to aggressively stand up for themselves when provoked, whether with their words, a push or a shove. These engendered patterns are slowly changing. But far too often, little girls like your daughter crumble at the thought of saying, "Stop that!" or "NO!"

You can help your daughter start learning how to stand up for herself, without compromising her kind nature.

Model assertive behavior. In my upcoming book, Parenting with Presence, I outline four ways that we can interact with others: Passive, Passive-Aggressive, Aggressive and Assertive. The latter -- Assertive -- is the healthiest of these options, allowing us to express our needs without trampling on those around us.

The more you help your daughter learn what assertive behavior looks, sounds, and feels like, the easier it will be for her to follow suit. If someone at the library rudely says, "Jeez, lady. People are supposed to be quiet in the library! Can't you control your kids?" when your three-year old forgets his inside voice, you might be tempted to roll your eyes, or respond with something like, "Well, it's obvious you've never had kids!"

But to model assertive behavior, you could say, "I understand, and I'm going to take my son outside. But if you have a complaint, I'd appreciate it if you'd speak politely." Similarly, if a family member yells at you for arriving late, instead of snapping back or saying nothing, you might let your daughter hear you say, "I apologize for keeping you waiting. But I'm not okay with you yelling at me."

It will also help if you role play assertive behavior with your daughter. Let her become comfortable trying on assertive behavior with you, in practice scenarios, so it will feel more natural when others are rude to her. Perhaps you can act out what to do if someone rushes to grab a swing after she's been patiently waiting. "I know you want a turn, but I'm next." Or you might role play a situation where a child teases her for wearing the same outfit twice in one week. "I don't like it when you make fun of my clothes. Please stop it."

Be careful not to criticize your daughter for being passive; that will only fuel her insecurity. Instead, help her become familiar with what it sounds and feels like to stand up for herself so you can begin to help her become more fearless.

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the upcoming, Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.

To learn more about her online parenting courses and support, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter.

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