Self-Assertion in Children and How to Deal With This Challenging Behavior

When little ones assert themselves, they aren't going against their parents. They're simply starting off along the route to their own independence.
Self-Assertion in Children and How to Deal With This Challenging Behavior
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Around the age of two, children enter a stage characterized by defiance. In fact, if you have a little one of this age, you’ll probably find they say ‘no’ to everything, constantly challenge you, and express themselves with anger or tears when they can’t get their own way. These behaviors are typical of self-affirmation, a natural process that parents must understand and follow.

The most important thing to understand is that this behavior isn’t anything bad. As a matter of fact, this new attitude in which they’re rebellious, disobedient, and not very accommodating is simply a part of their development. Indeed, it’s positive that this kind of behavior is present. That’s because, although it’s exhausting, annoying, and infuriating for you, it’s a sign that they’re building their own identity in a healthy way. Let’s take a closer look.

Self-assertion in children

Self-assertion is present in all human beings. It’s the characteristic that allows you to understand and express yourself as an individual. Thanks to it, you can defend your interests and your rights, and express your opinions and emotions with sincerity.

Furthermore, without self-assertion, which is a fundamental component of your self-esteem, you’d more than likely become a passive, submissive, and dependent being.

Child with stress

In the case of children, two phenomena occur that lead us to look at self-assertion as a negative. On the one hand, it’s common to believe that minors must obey adult orders without question. On the other hand, before the age of two, children don’t exhibit this type of defiant attitude, so its sudden appearance can surprise and confuse parents.

In reality, the child hasn’t changed their personality. Nor do they have a behavior problem. In fact, they’re simply going through a natural developmental stage. In fact, it’s at this time, between 24 and 36 months, when infants begin to perceive themselves as individual beings. Indeed, up until then, they don’t clearly perceive the distinction between themselves and the external.

This leads them to want to assert themselves as different people and to try, in this sense, to assert their opinions, desires, and own views. Opposition to adults is one of the main tools they find for achieving this. Therefore, it’s common for them to refuse any request or suggestion from their parents.

Tantrums: a manifestation of self-assertion

In the process of self-assertion, tantrums are common. Ultimately, these are emotional expressions that are also natural and healthy. As a matter of fact, they occur in the vast majority of infants of this age. The difficulty arises when the adults in charge don’t know how to handle them.

If, as a parent, you lose your patience, you’ll probably scold your children and force them to obey and rigidly comply. However, this only makes the tantrums increase in frequency, duration, and intensity. On the contrary, if you understand the role of tantrums and the need behind them, you can direct their energy in a positive direction for all concerned.

Keys to Managing Challenging Behaviors

We already know that the intelligent management of children’s self-assertion goes beyond fighting or resisting in a systematic way. However, tantrums are undoubtedly painful and uncomfortable for both children and adults.

How, then, can we reduce the occurrence of tantrums? Here are some keys:

  • To the best of your ability, allow your child to make their own decisions. For example, you can allow them to wear that summery shirt that they like if they agree to wear a jacket over it. In this way, you feel that you have a choice and that your voice is heard and you won’t need to assert yourself by opposing them.
  • Set the boundaries that are strictly necessary and be flexible with others. Of course, there are situations when it’s not possible to negotiate and you have to stand up and lead the way. However, on many other occasions, it’s possible to take into account the opinion of your child.
  • Allow your child’s emotional expression. Although the boundaries you’ve set are necessary and must be respected, your little one has the right to feel angry, rage, disgust, or sadness when these limits prevent them from satisfying their desires. In these cases, you can use phrases like: “It’s normal for you to feel angry, but it’s not okay for you to break or throw things. When you feel that way, you can talk to me, and we can go out for a walk.” Validate them, let them know that you understand why they feel this way, and treat them with understanding and respect.
Mother talking to her daughter in the kitchen

In short, remember that children can, and should, have their own opinions, decisions, and emotions. Don’t assume they should be blindly obedient or consistently submissive. Furthermore, don’t take their rebellious and defiant attitudes personally. They’re not doing it to annoy or disrespect you, they’re only affirming their identity.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Naranjo, M. L. (2007). Autoestima: un factor relevante en la vida de la persona y tema esencial del proceso educativo. Revista Electrónica” Actualidades Investigativas en Educación”7(3), 0.
  • Díaz, P., & Bonet, C. (2005). Las rabietas en la infancia: qué son y cómo aconsejar a los padres. Revista Pediatría de Atención Primaria7(25).

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.