Why it’s important for kids to learn to express themselves

Ilze van de Merwe-Alberts writes about the importance of affirming your child’s voice, and how you can get her to express herself assertively and confidently.

1. To ask for help

Children have many needs, wants, uncertainties and vulnerabilities, so they need to know how to ask for help, whether it’s something simple like pouring a glass of milk, or something bigger like helping with a bully at school or in the neighbourhood. When children get feedback that too little – or too much – is done when they ask for help, they start to think they’re helpless and either uncared for or over-cared for.

When a child asks for help with pouring a glass of milk, he isn’t necessarily asking his parent to pour the milk for him; he may be asking: “Show me how to pour the milk”. A caring parent will take the time and put in the effort to show him supportively how to do it, with room for error and learning. The parent who jumps in and tries to rescue her child from a bully, isn’t really listening to her child. The child is saying in essence: “I have a challenge at school and I don’t know how to handle it”. Help your child to have a voice by teaching him to say “No” loudly and clearly to unacceptable behaviour. In this way, you’ll teach him tools for life, instead of overprotecting and misunderstanding him.

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2. To state their needs and wants

Children need to learn to differentiate between whining and nagging, and actually asking for something. They need to learn the valuable lesson that you don’t always get what you ask for, but you should still ask. A child who whines has learnt that this will get him what he wants. Why else would he use this disempowering and annoying tactic?

Children must learn to ask for what they want in a strong and confident voice, not in an insecure and manipulative one. Children only learn which voice works best by the responses they receive. Pay little attention to a nagging and complaining voice, but listen when your child talks to you with certainty and assurance. Reward the “correct” voice with positive feedback and encouragement. But when your child uses the disempowering voice, respond by saying something like: “It’s difficult for me to understand you, as you’re moaning and nagging, which makes your words difficult to hear”. Give your child feedback about the voice he’s using. How else will he learn and know what works? Remember, any person will continue with certain behaviour if they see that it works.

3. To offer their opinions

Too many children learn to become people pleasers – to their own detriment and disempowerment. Children quickly learn to express themselves in a way that they believe is acceptable and pleasing to others. Have you heard a child answering “You choose” to a simple question like “Do you want red or green cold drink??” This is a sign of a child who hasn’t discovered that it’s important for him to express what he wants, because he’s important. Tell your child: “What you want is important, so you can decide”. And when he tells you what he wants, give him encouraging feedback. Help him to know that his needs and preferences do matter.

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4. To express discomfort

Children who learn to stand up for themselves when their personal space is being violated are more likely to be safe from the dangers of life. It’s therefore important to teach your child to say “No” when he feels uncomfortable – even to a grown-up. Teach him that he is his own “boss”, that no one is allowed to do anything to him that he doesn’t like, and that even a child can say “No”.

5. To explain their emotions

Lastly, teach your children to express themselves when they’re sad, angry, disappointed, frustrated or happy. Parents must beware of modelling the incorrect expression of emotions. Shouting, complaining and talking down to another person isn’t the right way to express your feelings. Show your children the appropriate way to express feelings, emotionally and intelligently. That is the beginning and the foundation of affirming your child’s voice.

As you reflect their feelings with sincerity, your child will learn that his emotions are validated. The more he gets feedback from people that what he says is valuable and respected, the more he will feel that his voice counts.

*Originally published in December 2011

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