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Skills for Youth

All Skills for Youth

Assertiveness as a Strategy for Increasing Self Esteem

by Pam Wilson

The following aspects of the skill are covered:

Description of the Skill

One way to increase self esteem is to become more assertive. Assertiveness is a skill that can help you have more control over what is happening in your life, which can then lead to higher self esteem.

Assertive behaviors include:

  • asking for what you want or need
  • saying what you are really feeling whether it's positive or negative
  • saying "no" to what you don't want

Consider the following three communication styles:

You want to communicate something, but you don't express yourself, or you do so in a very timid or indirect manner that has no effect.

You communicate in a manner that hurts or offends the other person. Aggressive communication can be openly nasty (putting someone down, threatening, or pressuring) or it can be indirect (sarcasm, gossip, or saying something ugly behind someone's back).

You express your thoughts and feelings clearly and directly without intentionally hurting or disrespecting the other person.

Being passive rather than assertive can leave you feeling depressed and worthless, feeling disrespected, feeling like a "wimp," feeling that you're not in control of your life, feeling frustration, anger, and/or anxiety. Being passive can also hurt your ability to have successful relationships because you aren't able to express your feelings directly and honestly.

Being aggressive rather than assertive can cause others in your life to feel hurt, angry or disrespected, and they might respond aggressively in return. This style can also lead to poor relationships characterized by a lack of communication and high levels of conflict.

Specific Skills

  • Use assertive body language. Face the other person, stand or sit straight, don't use dismissive gestures, be sure you have a pleasant but serious facial expression, keep your voice calm and clear, not whiny or abrasive.
  • Make clear, direct, requests without any hesitation or a lot of explanations. Don't invite the other person to say no.

    Example: "Will you please .... ?" instead of "Would you mind ...?" or "Do you think you would be able to ...?"
  • Use "I" statements. I feel (emotion) when you (behavior). I would prefer that you (alternate behavior.)

    Example: "I feel disrespected when you keep interrupting me. I'd like to be able to finish making my point."
  • Stay focused on what you want to change without accusing or blaming the other person.

    Example: "I'd like to be able to tell you something without worrying that other people will find out my business" instead of "You're such a gossip!"
  • Give someone feedback calmly and respectfully without being aggressive or judgmental.

    Example: "It seems like you pull away whenever we have some kind of disagreement" instead of "You think you're so tough, but you're a wimp when it comes to this relationship."
  • Take ownership of your own thoughts and feelings.

    Example: "I get upset when you go through my things without my permission" instead of "You make me so mad when you go into my room and go through my stuff behind my back."
  • Use the broken record technique. Keep repeating your point, using a low level, pleasant voice. Don't get pulled into arguing or trying to explain yourself.

    Example: You are trying to buy a CD player that is on sale, and the sales person is trying to sell you one that is more expensive because it has state-of-the-art features, but you know you can't afford the more expensive equipment. Using the broken record, you say, "I want the CD player that's on sale." Then no matter what the clerk says, you keep repeating, "I want the one that's on sale."


Demonstration of the Skill

Before having youth practice the skill of assertiveness, model three styles of making a request. For example, ask three participants, one at a time, if you can borrow their pen or pencil, changing the style of your request each time. Pay attention to your tone of voice and body language, using them to emphasize the three different styles.

Aggressive request
In a gruff tone of voice, say something like, "Give me your pen. I don't have a pen, and I need to borrow one" while snatching the pen out of the youth's hand.

Passive request
Look nervous and softly mumble something like, "Could you, uh, could I please, uh, would you mind if I borrowed your pen, please?" while looking down at the floor.

Assertive request
Look the person in the eyes, smile in a non-threatening manner. In a calm, clear voice, say something like, "I need a pen for this next exercise. May I borrow yours?"

Debrief what you modeled with the group until you're sure that they can distinguish the three styles and that they're clear about assertiveness.


Behavioral Practice of the Skill

Body Language

To emphasize the importance of body language as a component of assertiveness, have youth assess what their body language is communicating when they are talking. Help them understand that how we say something can be more important than what we say.

  1. Review assertive body language:
    • Make direct eye contact.
    • Keep your back straight and head high (erect posture).
    • Speak clearly and audibly.
    • Use facial expressions and gestures that add emphasis to your words.
    • Avoid passive body language: No eye contact (or indirect evasive eye contact); soft, whiny or muffled voice; cringing/or physically making yourself small (hang-dog posture); use of nervous or childish gestures.
    • Avoid aggressive body language: angry staring-eye contact, loud strident voice, invading someone's personal space, pointing your finger, balling your fists, yelling, towering over others.
  1. Have youth form triads (small groups of three people) and take turns acting out the following situations:


    • Ask a friend to loan you some money.
    • Turn down a friend who wants to borrow something.
    • Confront someone who told a lie about you.
    • Tell someone that he/she hurt your feelings.
    • Thank someone who helped you out of a jam.
    • Ask someone to stop bumping into you.
    • Turn down a cigarette from a friend at a party.


    • Tell your partner that you are not ready to have sex.
    • Tell your partner that from now on, you want to use condoms when the two of you have sex.
    • Confront your partner about talking about your sex life with others at school. (You want your sex life to be personal and not shared with others.)

In the small groups, have individuals take turns being the speaker, listener, and observer. Observers will give the speakers feedback on their body language including eye contact, facial expressions, posture, tone of voice, etc.

Rehearsal and Role-playing
Using scripted role-plays* (developed with youth input), have volunteers practice being assertive in situations that are realistic for them. Have them focus on using body language to reinforce the words they are reading.
A "scripted role-play" is similar to writing a very short play. Characters are developed and assigned names or personas. A short exchange between the characters is developed and written into lines — just like the lines you might read for the script of a play or movie. Volunteers act out the role-play by reading the script. The script should be written so that it gives volunteers a good example of how an effective and realistic assertive interaction might take place.

Next have youth identify situations in which they expect a possible confrontation or when they think it will be challenging to tell someone what they're really thinking or feeling. Set up unscripted role-plays to have them practice handling those situations assertively.

Be sure to give feedback to actors after each demonstration so they can recognize what they are doing well and what they can do to be more assertive.



  • Encourage youth to rehearse or role play assertive behavior over and over again until their responses become second nature. Reinforcement will increase their likelihood of communicating assertively even in stressful situations.
  • Explain that assertiveness is a skill that they will continue to work on and practice throughout their lives. Some situations are harder than others so they must be patient with themselves.
  • Create teachable moments by commenting on group members' behavior when you observe them being assertive, aggressive or passive. Of course, reinforce any assertive behavior in the group. Set up opportunities for individuals to "re-write the script" and re-enact the situation with group support if they've been either aggressive or passive.
  • During your facilitation of these activities, ask youth how they feel about themselves after they've communicated assertively in different situations. Make the link between assertiveness and self esteem.

About the Author
Pamela Wilson, MSW, is a nationally known sexuality education consultant and trainer. She has written or co-authored numerous curricula and other publications, including, When Sex is the Subject: Attitudes and Answers for Young Children and a new curriculum, Our Whole Lives: Sexuality Education for Grades 7-9. She is also featured in the sexuality education videos Raising Healthy Kids: Families Talk About Sexual Health. Pam can be reached at

Pam Wilson Photo