Q: The other day as I was dropping off my 2 1/2-year-old at preschool, I saw another child take the toy he was playing with. My son didn't protest at all. He simply picked up another toy. What can I do to help him be more assertive?
A: It's hard to see your child on the receiving end of a behavior that, at best, isn't nice and, at worst, is hurtful. It can be even harder to watch your child sit back and take it. It sounds like your son may be a quiet, introverted child who shies away from conflict, or he could just be a mellow, easygoing kid. Either way, being tuned in to his temperament—his typical way of approaching the world—will help you understand why he behaves as he does. At the same time you don't want to make assumptions about his reaction. It is important to figure out, as best as you can, what the specific incident meant to him. Was he bothered by it? Was he angry or hurt that the toy was taken or did he really not care? Did he feel like protesting but didn't know how to—or wasn't confident enough?
It is also important to be aware of what's behind your own reaction. You want to make sure you're not confusing your own feelings with his. Think about why this incident bothered you, because one might also see your son's response—turning his attention to another toy—as a healthy choice that worked just fine for him in this instance.
After exploring both your feelings and your son's, if you decide you want to intervene next time he's in a similar situation, be careful not to give him the message that you think there's something wrong with him. This can erode his self-confidence. Instead think of yourself as a good coach, someone who values and respects who your son is but is supporting him in expressing himself better. Here are some things you can try:
If your son is very verbal, talk with him about what happened: "Sometimes when another child takes our toy, we don't mind. But sometimes we don't like it and feel angry. How did you feel when Justin took your toy?"
Offer suggestions for what he can do, such as asking the child to give the toy back or turning to the teacher or a parent for help. Role-play with him. Let him play the part of both the victim and the aggressor.
When opportunities come up, encourage your son to stand up for himself. For example, if he is waiting in line and another child cuts in front of him, tell him he can politely tell the child, "Excuse me, I was here first."
It will also be helpful to talk to your son's teachers and other important caregivers. Share your concerns with them and find out how they see your son. Children like yours who tend to be "easy"—less demanding and call little attention to themselves—can sometimes go unnoticed. Discussing your concerns will heighten the teachers' awareness that your son has needs too. Then you can develop a plan together.
Keep in mind that with your love and steady support you can help your child find his own voice.