Q. I have a ten your old son who is a very timid by nature. He's always anxious to please his friends and is overly nice to them; he will go to great lengths to avoid any unpleasant situation with them. That's why I'm surprised that he has social problems in school and that he's the butts of his friends' insults and practical jokes. How can I help him?

A. The Torah does not obligate a person to be like a stone when someone hurts him or her. We are encouraged to speak out to protect our own dignity and prevent others from hurting us. In the same verse where it's written "lo tikom," do not take revenge, it also says "lo tisna et achicha bilvavecha," you shall not hate your brother in your heart. This means that although we may not take revenge, we are also enjoined not to harbor bottled up feelings of resentment against others—and to take the necessary actions to remedy the situation.

Encourage your son to approach the child who hurts him and openly and assertively let him know how he hurt him. In a dignified manner he can try to put a stop to this behavior, by saying something like, "I cannot allow you to hurt me. The next time you insult me, I will tell someone about it. This is not in order to hurt you back, but to protect myself and make you aware that this is not acceptable."

Not all children are naturally able to speak up, express their opinions, or stand up for their rights. A child's inability to be assertive may often result in passive behavior. He or she learns to live with the pain of unexpressed needs and suffers in silence, frequently causing headaches, stomachaches and even unexpected bouts of aggressive behavior when the resentment and frustration becomes too much to bear.

Yet assertiveness is a skill that all children can learn. As parents it is our duty to teach our children the art of standing up for their personal rights. We can guide them towards learning how to communicate their ideas, feelings and needs in a direct, honest and confident manner without fear and without being disrespectful of another person's rights. Assertive communication includes words (i.e. respectful, kind, sticking to your point), body language (i.e. making eye contact, upright posture), and tone of voice (i.e. clear, firm and audible).

The benefits are many:

  • A child who knows how to express his needs and assert his rights is less likely to bottle up his hurt feelings. Neither does he feel the need to resort to aggressive behavior—he has better tools at his disposal.
  • The more children trust and value their own feelings, the more likely they will be to value the feelings of friends and to be respectful to adults.
  • They will find it easier to resist negative peer pressure and know how to say no to drugs, tobacco and alcohol.

The ability to express themselves will help them embrace life with confidence and succeed in achieving their personal goals.

What parents can do:

  • Infuse your child with a healthy self esteem by frequently reminding him of your love and respect for him. Give him your time and patience and your listening ear. Show him that his opinions count.
  • Remind him that he has a G‑dly soul. He was created in the image of G‑d and, like every human being, he has a right to be spoken to with respect.
  • Be a role model. Practice assertive behavior yourself so that your child can learn from your example.
  • Teach your child to use honest statements of feelings and "I-messages" to express his rights in a firm, respectful and confident manner.
  • Have your child visualize assertive responses to common situations he faces with his friends. Role-play imaginary situations and have him practice standing up for himself. This will give him the confidence to respond assertively in a real life situation.
  • Have him practice assertiveness by complimenting someone, or asking a new friend to join him for a walk

Assertiveness is a skill that may take a lifetime to master, but as parents it's essential to get our children off on a right start.