There’s a big difference between being bossy and being assertive, but these concepts are tricky to separate, especially with little ones who are growing into their own personalities. You see your toddler yell at a playmate for taking the toy he’s playing with, and you automatically cringe. In reality, your toddler is learning to stand up for himself. In other words, he’s being assertive and sticking up for what he thinks is right.That is quite a feat for a little guy!
From 12 to 36 months of age, the way your child plays, shares, and socializes will change a lot. During the earlier part of toddlerhood, he’ll be less likely to want to share with others and more likely to throw a tantrum if he doesn’t get his way. Around 20 months, he’ll start understanding concepts of “self” and “needs/wants” more, which is when you might begin to see more of his bossy side show through.
Bossy vs. Assertive
Bossiness is your toddler getting mad at a playmate for not playing with the kitchen set the “right” way. Assertiveness is your toddler saying, “I don’t want to play that” or moving away to play with something else after his friend keeps poking him to continue playing. See the difference?
Being bossy is a way to try to make things go your way. Assertiveness is defending yourself, your needs, and your wants. Bossiness is common in toddlerhood, a time when children are still figuring out how to be social and play peacefully. If a pattern of bossiness continues without support and intervention from parents and caregivers, it could lead to bullying behaviors in the future.
Teaching Positive Assertiveness
Positive assertiveness allows your toddler to express his feelings, needs, and wants in a productive way, which is key to forming healthy relationships. Here are a few tips for supporting positive assertiveness:
Be mindful of your tone.
Toddlers mimic what they see, so it’s crucial for parents and caregivers to model the type of behavior they want their toddlers to have. In this case, using positive language can go a long way.
Try using “yes” instead of “no” more often. For example, if your toddler asks for a snack before dinner, you might say, “Yes, after you finish eating dinner.” He won’t be met with an immediate negative response and will, instead, feel like his needs and wants are valid.
Also, using manners and positive directions, like “Please try to use the potty before going to bed,” instead of, “Use the potty or no bedtime story!” will go a long way toward teaching your toddler positive communication.
Don’t let bossiness slide.
While it’s essential to model positive communication around your toddler, it’s equally as important not to give into him. If he throws a tantrum or demands something while leaving his manners behind, ignore his pleas. Giving in to his behavior will only show him that being bossy will, eventually, work to benefit him.
Supervise his play.
Staying involved with your toddler’s play has two primary benefits:
- You can monitor his play and intervene if he starts to become bossy, and
- You can support his learning by stepping in and role-playing some situations.
As he plays with his friends, simply stay close by and observe. If he begins to try to take control of the situation, you can jump in and offer to play, too. When you do, show your toddler how fun it can be to share with others and play what they want to play. Use positive assertiveness (like a polite, “No, thank you” if a child takes another child’s toy) to model how to handle a situation.
There is no magical solution for transforming your toddler’s behavior from bossy to assertive. It’s going to take time and a lot of support, especially during his second year when he’s learning more about himself, how to get what he needs and wants, and how to interact with others. With regular support and guidance, you can help your toddler grow into a confident and positive communicator.
The social-emotional section of the BabySparks development program has several toddler activities that promote empathy and positive socialization.