Assertiveness of a child vs assertiveness of an adult

The word ‘assertiveness’ is well known in today’s world. When we say it, most of the time we mean good self-esteem, confidence and the ability to speak your mind clearly.

Today I propose to look at assertiveness more precisely and see the difference between assertiveness of a person who is just learning to manage their emotions (it may be a child or an adult) and a person who has their emotions already well integrated (an adult, but not every one).

When a child comes to this world and starts experiencing life, it has no problems with a primitive assertiveness: demands what it needs, screams when something is wrong, is unhappy when something is denied, and the child does it in a very elemental uncontrollable way. With time, when the child gains more understanding and better ability to speak, we expect from the child to express their needs more consciously. Mom can say to the child: “Johny, if you don’t want to eat this sandwich, don’t scream and tell me what you would like”. Or: “Suzy, I see you are sad, tell me what happened.”

Good caregiver notices emotional states of a child and helps them to express emotions with words, more consciously. It helps the child to learn about themselves, the world and other people. So now the child not only spontaneously experiences life, but also starts to understand the experience. This way, the experience can become regulated instead of being only an impulsive action-reaction.

Sometimes we forget that a child can’t fully and rationally communicate their needs and we lose our patience. Nevertheless, it’s the caregiver’s job to acknowledge that whatever the child experiences is very real to him or her. This way, the child learns to respect their own feelings and express them without fear.

With time, when the understanding becomes better and deeper, the child can communicate their inner state more accurately. Let’s look at an example. Mom comes back home from store and she is really upset. She lost her wallet. A 10 year old kid comes to mom and says something. Upset mom pushes the child away, because she is overtaken by her emotions.

First scenario: if the kid has been taught how to express his or her emotions and feelings, the kid may say: “Mom, I don’t like when you are like that.” It is not very precise and complex statement, but it clearly says that the child is afraid and this rejection is too much to process.

Mom’s job is to hear it, acknowledge it and react adequately. She may say: “Mark, everything is OK, something happened and it upset me, but it’s not your fault. Let me rest a little and I will come to you in a moment.”

When a caregiver does their job well, that is, observes the child, understands the child’s inner state and gives them space to express their inner difficulties, the child becomes more and more emotionally intelligent, meaning, assertive.

Second scenario: if the child has not been taught how to safely express themselves, the reaction to the same situation with mom will be: hiding, crying, feeling fear, guilt, or anger, and a belief that he or she is not loved and needed anymore.

Generally speaking, assertiveness of a child is about telling the world how they feel in a given situation and they do it by projecting their feelings on others, making the others responsible for it.

Notice in our example above, that when mom snorted at Mark, and he said he didn’t like when she behaved this way, what he really meant was: Mom, I’m not coping with my feelings right now, I’m scared, and you are doing it to me. Please, do something with yourself, so I can feel better.

This is a child’s assertiveness. A child can’t take responsibility for their own mood yet, because the system is not mature enough and still doesn’t have its own boundary. So the child blames the external world for their inner processes and demands from others to be responsible for their feelings: It is your fault that I feel this way, change it.

When we are children, this behavior is expected and unavoidable. However when the structures of awareness develop more and more, and the caregivers are wise and can provide safe space for the child to express themselves without being judged or criticized, the need to make others responsible for the child’s feelings, becomes smaller. A maturing person becomes more responsible for his or her feelings and moods. They see and understand that all reactions come from within and nobody causes it.

So in our example, already adult 20 years old Mark approaches mom who just came back upset from store, and asks her something. Mom answers something rudely. Mark may be unhappy with this answer, but he won’t become desperate and crushed. Seeing his mother’s mood he will back away and give her space. He will take care of his unhappiness in his own way. After all, she didn’t GIVE him this unhappy feeling, it was his reaction from within to the fact, that the mother didn’t answer his question, that is, didn’t meet his expectation.

Adult Mark has a choice here: to remain a victim and blame his mother for his unhappiness, or to discern that his mom’s emotions have nothing to do with him, because what happened to her was not connected to him in any way. Her reaction was not directed at him, but was a result of the difficult situation.

A small child who does not have this kind of discernment yet and still is partially blended with the external world, will absorb emotions of other people, or will blame others for his or her own emotions. The system still processes everything more globally, because it’s not refined yet to distinguish between the inner world and the external world. The worlds are still merged, not individuated.

And here we are arriving to the subject of adult people, who didn’t have a chance to develop good assertiveness in their childhood. Many times it becomes a source of serious misunderstandings, because we unwittingly think that the expression of ourselves, characteristic to children, is still normal in adulthood. Unfortunately often it is not.

Let’s take as an example two people in a relationship. He complains that she is focused on her life, that she does not give him enough attention and time, does not respect his needs. He feels rejected and unimportant. Let’s see three different scenarios of assertiveness in this situation:

1. No assertiveness – being locked in a victim role – he sees only himself and his pain.

He is immersed in his own emotions and can’t communicate them, maybe he is not even fully aware of them. There is only hurt. He is helplessly waiting for her to guess what’s going on and take the load of responsibility for everything, on herself. It is a typical behavior of a toddler, who is not aware of his/her inner states yet and is waiting for mom or dad to recognize them, and then come and rescue the child. So in this example he is waiting for her to be his parent who will save him for him.

An example of no assertiveness would be: creating demonstrations of being hurt or offended, or explosions of inadequate anger about meaningless things.

2. Assertiveness of a child – remaining in a position of dependence – he sees himself as a victim, and the other person as a source of his pain.

He is blaming her and he thinks that his discomfort in the relationship is caused by her inappropriate behavior. He can’t take responsibility for his own emotions and wants her to change her behavior so he can feel better. It is again a typical behavior of a child who is still merged with his environment and can’t distinguish his own inner content from a content of another person. Although here we can see the need to solve the problem, but in a way that is still immature, where “mom does everything, because the child can’t do it yet by himself.”

An example of assertiveness of a child would be: “I’m angry that you don’t spend time with me, I feel rejected and unimportant in your eyes, because of it.”

What we read here between lines is: it is your fault that I feel this way, fix it.

3. Assertiveness of an adult – taking 100% responsibility for his emotional state by seeing his own inner conditioning as a source of his emotional reaction.

He is not happy that they don’t spend more time together, but he uses his unhappiness as an information in a wider context. He may think: Is it possible that I feel unimportant because my self-esteem is low and her behavior triggers it? Do I feel threatened, because she knows how to take care of herself and achieve her goals, and I was not allowed to do so, and I don’t know how to take care of my needs? Am I jealous, because with my low self-esteem it is unthinkable that she may give more attention to her goals than to me?

If he successfully finds the inner source of his reaction, the problem is solved. It may happen in two ways:

  • after he eliminated the source of his low self-esteem he can see now her behavior in a different light. He can see that his reaction was a projection of his own unresolved issue and he wanted to pull her into it. In this scenario, an example of an adult assertiveness would be the final stage of this process, that is, an adequate reaction. He may say then: “You know, I miss our time together. Let’s plan something for both of us.” He used his own unhappiness as an information needed to solve the problem, instead of playing the victim and expecting some special treatment.
  • or, if she is indeed focused only on her own goals and has no time for anything else, after he eliminated the source of his low self-esteem, he may say: “I’m sorry, but this relationship is not working for me, we don’t match. I’d like to end it.” This decision is free of any hurt, contempt, anger, fear or guilt. It’s peaceful. And if this decision is accompanied by mentioned above emotions, it means that the decision is not an adult assertiveness, but an escape from self-responsibility. It will lead to repeating the same experiences with another person.

In both examples this person is not a victim waiting for somebody to save him, but a creator of his own fate.


The most mature form of assertiveness is the ability to attentively read the situation, then to process the information inside without announcing one’s emotional state to the world, and as a result, to react adequately. Underneath the final reaction there is peace. In an adult form of assertiveness, emotions are just information for us showing our position in a given situation and telling us what to do adequately to that situation. It is not an information for others about our “misfortune”, so others can do something about it for us.

Now the question is, what to do, when there are adult people who didn’t have good teachers and have not developed the adult assertiveness yet? Of course, it’s not a reason to get discouraged, but to understand the process. If somebody needs to learn the stage of assertiveness of a child and practice how to announce out-loud their emotional states to others, that’s OK. If two people are aware of it and practice this stage between themselves, it becomes a valuable learning needed for following stages of development.

The most important thing is to understand, that announcing one’s emotional states and expecting that others should change something so the person can feel better is only a STAGE of development of assertiveness, and not its goal. It is easy to get stuck in the belief that it is others’ responsibility to pay attention to our emotional states and care about them, while we don’t have to do anything with it. In childhood it is a normal expectation. In adulthood it is immature, dysfunctional and causes emotional drama.

Another important characteristic of adult assertiveness is the ability to recognize that the emotional state of the other person belongs to that person and their internal world, and not something that is directed at and against us. Even if on the surface something is directed at us, underneath it is still a projection and has nothing to do with us. Most likely it is a subconscious, entangled and unresolved process of that person. You need a good amount of self-awareness to see it and avoid being sucked into it. It is up to us if we treat something that belongs to others as our own, or if we leave it where it belongs.

Check your state of assertiveness. Maybe there is none, maybe there is some in certain situations and not in others. Maybe sometimes it is still the assertiveness of a child, and sometimes quite adult. Whatever it is, the good news is that the path of assertiveness development is available to everyone, at every age and in every stage of growth.