My 8-year-old daughter Hayley has always been a leader, not a follower. When she feels something is not right, she speaks out. This quality of her personality is evident in Hayley’s interactions with her friends and in extracurricular settings.
But at home, Hayley couldn’t be more opposite, as she does everything her 5-year-old sister Ellie (nicknamed “the boss”) tells her to do. Ellie decides what games they will play, what shows they will watch, and when it is time for a new activity.
This relationship has baffled us for years. Why doesn’t Hayley stand up for herself around Ellie?
Apparently, the issue is more common than we thought as we hear from parents with this question often. Here’s what the experts had to say about why kids don’t stand up for themselves around stronger personality siblings or friends or go along with the crowd (even if it’s jumping off a cliff):
The emergence and role of personalities
According to Dr. Arthur Lavin, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, by about 18 months, children become aware of their likes and dislikes. From then on, he says, we are all faced with a nearly impossible problem to solve.
“From toddlers to children to adults, we are constantly trying to navigate these complex waters of our internal likes and dislikes, and the likes and dislikes of everybody around us,” Lavin says.
That’s when our personalities come in.
“We start to rely on our personality to come up with solutions for different situations,” he says.
Assertive v. bossy
Two common personality traits are assertive and bossy.
A child who is assertive works actively to find a conflict resolution, as they tend to state their point of view with the intention of letting someone know how they feel.
In contrast, a child who is bossy wants others to be compliant with them. Children who are bossy have a harder time expressing themselves, which is why this trait often comes with anger.
According to Dr. Jerry Bubrick, senior psychologist at the Child Mind Institute Anxiety Disorder Center, being assertive is optimal, as kids who are assertive have higher self-confidence and self-esteem.
“Children who are assertive have a strong sense of who they are,” he says. “They like things to be fair.”
Lavin says it is common for children’s personalities to contain a number of faces, which can include being both assertive and bossy.
“Kids are always exploring limits and seeing what they can get away with,” he says. “But they are always learning and from every situation.”
Picking their battles
Because kids who are naturally assertive have more self-control, and a better understanding of how life works, they often find themselves being able to choose which battles to fight.
“Choosing not to go along with someone who is bossy doesn’t define a child as a pushover,” Bubrick says. “Sometimes, it is just easier to let some things go. A child who does this is evolved and mature.”
How parents can help
Bubrick says parents can help their kids become more assertive by listening to them and validating that their feelings matter. He also suggests role playing with children so they are better equipped to solve problems with siblings or friends as they arise.
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