Teach your kids to be assertive 

Once your kids enter elementary school, you have to do some major letting go. No longer can you be their ears and eyes and help them form the right words in tough situations. For the most part, they are on their own during class, recess and on the field. Whether it’s making the right choice about going along with a friend’s bad behavior or fending off a bully or threatening adult, they must rely on their own resources. Even though you can’t be by their side, you can give them tools to keep trouble at bay, such as specific words for certain situations, assertive body language skills, listening to their guts and talking with you when strange things happen. 

The right words for the right situation

As parents, give your kids permission to state their needs directly and clearly. Of course in normal conversation it’s best to be polite, but politeness has no place in threatening situations. Speaking directly, as in, “Stop that, I don’t like it” is a powerful tool—one all kids have when they feel threatened or afraid. If your child wants a situation to stop, fewer words are better. They also need to know they have the right to leave uncomfortable situations or check in with a trusted adult about “off” interactions. If kind appeals to stop do not work, it’s time for stronger words and physical cues, such as saying stop loudly and putting a hand out and stepping back. Role playing situations helps to hardwire these skills so your kids can automatically set them in motion when needed. 

Encourage kids to speak from the 'I' point of view. This technique works especially well in peer situations, such as thwarting a buddy’s invitation to goof off in class or ending a teasing session of a classmate on the playground. Kids can end a situation without putting off a friend by simply saying, ‘I don’t want to do that’ in a calm manner. This works because it’s neutral—it makes it about the speaker, not about the situation or other person, so it’s less threatening. Teaching kids to change course in an uncomfortable situation by saying, ‘Let’s go over there and play’ to a few members of the group can help end an escalating confrontation. 

Hearing what their gut has to say

For kids, an important part of handling a sticky situation is simply identifying it as that. In other words, hearing their gut when it says something is wrong or uncomfortable. So how do you teach your kids to get in touch with their gut feelings? Start by talking about feelings at an early age, which helps kids identify all types of feelings as they move through life. You might help your kids identify their gut feeling as an adrenaline rush. Describe it as when their stomach feels like it’s full of butterflies, or they feel an urge to leave quickly. That’s their gut saying something isn’t right and they need to stop and think about their next move. One way to teach kids to recognize an adrenaline rush is by playing a game where you act like a tiger and chase your child around the room. No doubt, you will stir up feelings of adrenaline. Explain that the butterfly feeling is a part of their power. It’s a warning to be alert and use tools like saying no and marching away to stay safe.   

Talk about sticky situations

Finally, and maybe most importantly, parents need to give a strong message that they want to hear about sticky situations their kids encounter. Let your kids know that if anything happens that they are concerned about or feel funny about, they should tell you. Send the message loud and clear that if they ever feel uncomfortable or threatened at a friend’s house or an after-school activity, they should call home and have you come pick them up. Kids need to know there’s an escape valve and that you are there for them, no matter what.