Assertive vs. Aggressive - Helping Your Teen Understand the Difference

Dictionary.com defines assertive as "confidently aggressive or self-assured; positive: aggressive; dogmatic". They define aggressive as "vigorously energetic, especially in the use of initiative and forcefulness". Being aggressive and being assertive are often confused because of different points of view. Being assertive can be healthy and positive, but being aggressive definitely is not.

Why are some teens aggressive?

An aggressive teen stands up for himself in ways that violate the rights of others. It can involve actions like pushing, hitting, biting, kicking, and hair-pulling, or it can involve much more dangerous acts like stabbing, shooting, and rape. More often parents will see aggressive behaviors like:

  • Threatening or intimidating others
  • Malicious teasing, taunting, or name-calling
  • Gossiping, spreading rumors
  • Encouraging others to reject or exclude someone from the group

Teens may act out aggressively, because it is difficult for them to express fear, disappointment, frustration, or other painful feelings. Aggression can also be a learned behavior.

The use of bully tactics is destructive to relationships and, ultimately, to teen self-esteem. The use of aggressive behaviors, such as verbal or physical threats, may get teens what they want in the short term, but it spoils relationships in the long run.

Advantages of being assertive

In being assertive, your teen is demonstrating self-confidence, self-respect and the ability to stand up for himself effectively. Being more assertive will help improve a teen's decision-making skills and will make the people around them take them more seriously, which are both important parts of developing into a mature adult.

Assertiveness can also be described as respectfully claiming teen rights. An assertive teen is more likely to stand up for her rights and less likely to be bullied. Parents can teach their teens how to act assertively even in situations that involve peer pressure. An assertive teen is willing to negotiate, discuss, compromise, and wait while the other person thinks about their request. These are all behaviors that will help a teen feel good about who they are and what they are trying to accomplish.

What can parents do?

Parents can reduce the chance of their teens resorting to violence helping them be assertive rather than aggressive. Talk to them and explain what the difference is between aggression and assertiveness. Parents should guide teens toward non-violent solutions to problems through skills like:

  • problem-solving,
  • stress management,
  • assertiveness,
  • anger control, and
  • impulse control.

Instill a sense of empathy

The most important step toward changing your teen's aggressive behavior is to help them develop a sense of empathy. Talk to your teen about how other people feel when they are physically and verbally abused. Tell them about personal experiences or point out applicable stories on TV, or in magazines or books. Put them in their victim's shoes by asking them how they would react if someone else abused them.

Guide your teen in developing good communication skills

Direct communication can reduce conflict, build self-confidence and self-esteem, and enhance personal relationships, but, like many other things, assertiveness and good communication skills take time to learn. Help your teen communicate her needs, wants, feelings, beliefs and opinions in a direct and honest way, without intentionally hurting anyone's feelings. Teach them to listen to others ideas and be respectful of differences in opinion. Your teen is not going to agree with everyone all the time, even her friends. Show her that disagreements or discussion can be a part of every relationship and it doesn't have to damage their friendship. Also help your teen recognize that acknowledging someone difference in beliefs or values does not mean that they should feel forced to accept them as their own.

Anger and aggression

Anger is a feeling. Aggression is an action that is meant to damage or destroy something or someone. A teen's outbursts can make parents feel angry, but as parents, we try not to react to this behavior in aggressive or violent ways (yelling, threatening or hitting your teen). If parents do react in an aggressive manner, it teaches teens that it is okay to treat other people with disrespect. Name-calling, harsh criticisms, and physical aggression displayed by parents are behaviors directly modeled by teens. On the other hand, if you handle disagreements at home with poise and positive, assertive behaviors, your child can learn to model those behaviors. Parents shouldn't walk away from a disagreement to escape the situation. Instead, maintain your emotions, stay patient and show your teen how to deal with anger in a constructive way

Your teen may find that even when they try to stay calm and resolve a disagreement with a peer, all that peer wants is to yell and fight. In this situation, it is best that your teen walks away. Teach them that it is better to try and resolve the situation later, after everyone has calmed down, than be pulled into a fight.

Encourage proper body language

Parents must encourage their teens to look people in the eye, hold their body upright (don't slouch), relax their shoulders, try to breathe normally, and speak at a normal conversational volume. This will convey confidence and maturity to the person they are talking to. If they breathe normally and don't raise their voice, it will also help keep a conversation from escalating into an argument.

If parents can help teen develop qualities such as insight, independence, relationship skills, initiative, sense of humor, creativity, and moral values, teens will be more likely to be assertive, rather than aggressive.

Fast Facts About Adolescents

More than 70 percent of children and adolescents with depressive disorders or other serious mood disorders do not receive appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

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