Dear Maxine,

I struggle with being assertive and worry about it affecting my children. I have always feared confrontation and have never had assertiveness modelled to me growing up. Often, I feel like I will cry (or do cry) and feel panicked under such circumstances. As a result, I tend to avoid situations where confrontation could arise eg. I avoid play areas with lots of other children as I worry that should my child encounter conflict then the other child’s parent will confront me and I’ll be unable to advocate for my child. I know I’ve imagined this specific scenario but I am aware that I am limiting my children’s activities for fear of conflict arising. What can I do to become more assertive and not allow my anxieties to ‘rub off’ on my children?

Thank you for any insight you can offer.

Dear Follower,

Thank you so much for getting in touch. I know for certain you are not alone in this fear. As ever, there are a number of things I’ve been thinking about in response to your question and I’ll try to address them in order.

In terms of how to communicate your needs effectively, I find nonviolent communication can be a really helpful starting point.

  1. How to manage anxiety in the moment (and afterwards)
  2. What does assertiveness mean to you? And what do you think it means about you?
  3. Responding when your child has done something ‘wrong’
  4. How imagining scenarios could be used to your advantage

How to manage anxiety in the moment (and afterwards)

We have a booklet you can download to help you to do this and you can receive it here.

However, this booklet is not specific to your situation, so let’s think about it more. There are lots of breathing exercises that can help and it’s a bit of trial and error to find the right one that works for you. What are your thoughts about breathing exercises? Until I understood what they were about, I was pretty against them. I thought that focusing on my breath couldn’t possibly sort out the problems I was experiencing. And, of course, it doesn’t completely. But it can help. Here’s why…

When we start to feel anxious, our bodies prepare for action. When our bodies start to prepare for action, our minds think there’s something to be aware/afraid of and so starts to feel anxious. When we start to feel anxious our bodies prepare for action… And so the loop continues.

Changing how we’re breathing can disrupt this loop and soothe our minds into being able to think at their full capacity again.

The breathing exercise I like most is breathing in through your nose for 4, holding for 5 and breathing out for 6. Those might not be the right timings for you, and it’s important you play around until you find what fits. The key is breathing out for longer than you breathe in. Practise is also really important. The more you practise breathing this way, the easier it will be when you really need it.

Then, when you can, check in with yourself. Is there real danger going on? Or are you anticipating something that might not happen? What if it has happened? What’s the worst thing about that? What is the fear here? Something we’ll address more when understanding what assertiveness means to you.


Let’s say it all went ‘horribly wrong’. Maybe you tried and it wasn’t received well. Maybe you couldn’t even bring yourself to try. Maybe you cried. Maybe your kids saw. What’s so bad about crying?

How can you be kind to yourself about this? How can you forgive yourself? Is there a way that you could reframe this to thinking that maybe it hasn’t gone ‘horribly wrong’? Maybe there were some positives you could take from it?

Remember, this has never been modelled to you and confrontation feels really scary. If you were asking your child to jump into a deep swimming pool, when they’d only practised swimming in the shallow end, how do you think they’d feel? What do you think they’d need? What if they got in and then forgot how to swim? Would you be angry at them? Would you say that they are worthless and shouldn’t bother? That they are failures?

Or would you give them a big cuddle? Say something like ‘oh man, that was really scary wasn’t it!? You did something really big and then forgot what the next step was. Do you know what? That’s totally normal when we’re learning. What do you think we could do to make it easier next time? Maybe we could go in a bit more slowly? Do something slightly less intense?’

How would you soothe your child and help them to feel better about swimming again? How could you do that for yourself?

And, if the ‘worst’ does happen and you get unmanageably upset and your children do see, how will you talk to them about it? What do you think they’d need to hear from you? How will you teach them that crying and getting upset isn’t something to be ashamed or afraid of? How will you explain what happened and help your children feel confident if it happens again?

What does assertiveness mean to you? And what do you think it means about you?

I’m not asking for the dictionary definition here. And I’m not asking about how ‘it would make me a good mum because I’d be modeling this for my kids’. I think the adult in you knows that being assertive is not only ‘fine’ it’s important.

It’s your inner child I’m wondering about.

What does she think being ‘assertive’ looks like? What does she think people will think about her if she is ‘assertive’? What’s she been told about herself when she’s been ‘assertive’ in the past?

As a woman, I imagine that even when you’ve not really been being that assertive at all, you’ll have had at least one instance of being called ‘bossy’, ‘intimidating’, ‘demanding’, ‘bulshy’ or some other derogatory term that only gets used for women, particularly those who are willing to ask for their needs to be met.

I invite you to look at your experiences of assertiveness and the responses you’ve had through this lens. Are there any beliefs that you’ve developed about yourself being assertive as a response to the reactions you’ve got? How could you think about that differently?

What’s so difficult about being assertive? Again, I’m curious about what the fear is. Where does it lie? What’s the worst possible outcome? What’s so bad about that outcome? How likely is that outcome? How would you manage if that happened? What would you need? How would you know you’d survived it?

And then I’m curious about how reasonable the outcome is, if it’s to do with the response you get. And whose responsibility you think another person’s feelings and responses are. My thinking is that the only person who is responsible for a person’s feelings and behaviour is that person. I wonder whether you agree or disagree and why, in either direction.

Responding when your child has done something ‘wrong’

What does it mean to you if your child has got into conflict? What do you think it means about you? How do you make sense of your child getting into a conflict?

I’m curious about feeling the need to ‘advocate’ for your child if a parent comes over. Why does it matter what that parent thinks about your child?

While, of course, there are some instances when it’s important to be our children’s advocate and to help them get their point across. I wonder whether that’s what going on, or whether you’re feeling the need to justify your child’s behaviour, which tends to come from feeling attacked or like we’ve done something wrong.

Worst case scenario: your child actively hurts another child because they are annoyed at what is happening. What do you think this means about your child? What do you think it means about you? Do you think your child’s behaviour is a reflection of you? What’s given you that idea?

Is there any other thing your child’s behaviour could be a reflection of? Maybe their current state of regulation? Could it be a sign that they’re hungry? Tired? Overstimulated? Struggling to communicate?

If you think about it this way, does it help to know what to do about it?

I guess if I’m thinking ‘my child has hit another child, that’s a sign that I’m a bad mum because I’ve brought up a child who thinks it’s OK to hit.’ That’s a big thing to sort out. I need to work out how to teach them not to hit. To work out how to be a ‘good’ mum. I probably feel a lot of shame, blame and need to punish myself and maybe my child.

However, if I think ‘my child has hit another child, I wonder what’s going on for them. Maybe I could find out. Were they frustrated and unable to use language to communicate what they needed? Are they finding it difficult not to hit because they’re hungry or tired so their brain isn’t working at full capacity?’ That gives me much more concrete solutions.

It also means that I don’t have to feel worried about someone telling me my child has done something ‘wrong’ because they’re really telling me that my child has a need that I can help them with. The ‘wrong’ is the other person’s judgement, it doesn’t have to be mine.

How does that sound to you? What comes up for you when you read that? How does it feel?

How imagining scenarios could be used to your advantage

Now, there is a limit here. Often, when we’re worried about things, we play scenarios over and over in our heads and that is not helpful for anyone.

However, practising scenarios and what we might say a few times and then stopping and letting it go, can be helpful.

So, imagine the worst outcome. What could you do in response to that? If it was your child saying these things to you, what would you do? Assuming you’re coming from a gentle and reflective parenting perspective, that understands that all behaviour is a communication, how might you interpret this parent’s behaviour?

Most of the time, our children’s behaviour is not a communication about us, it’s a communication about them. Sometimes, sure, we’ve done something that’s annoyed them and, of course, this isn’t to say that responses to violated boundaries are ‘just’ about our children, but, assuming we’re parenting in a respectful way, then the behaviour tends to be about our children.

It might be worth looking at my other blog post about fears of our children having tantrums, to help you think about this further.

And, although when it’s our children, we do need to sit through the pain and anger and accept it and love them anyway. We do not need to do this with a stranger in the park. We don’t owe that stranger anything. What would it be like to just let it go and walk away?

If that doesn’t feel OK, what do you think you could say to another parent in a worst case scenario, a medium case scenario and a best case scenario? Imagine doing that, imagine how it might go. Imagine it going well. Do that a few times and then let it go. Any time the anxiety comes up, remember that you have a plan and then let it go.

What do you need to soothe yourself in response to your anxiety about that? How can you reassure yourself that you are not a bad person or parent, even if someone thinks you are? What’s it like to read that? It feels quite strange to write it! But what gives that person’s opinion more prestige than yours?

I wonder whether this goes back to how you talk to yourself. How you can be kind to yourself, and how you can unconditionally love and accept yourself.

How do you feel having read this?

What will you take away from it?

What might you need more of in order to move forward?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Please leave a comment below or on Instagram/Facebook. And share with whoever you think needs to read this.