Tween girl plays on phone on bed


My Daughter is Suddenly Assertive. Now What?

Mar 7, 2019

The inciting incident is a lunch bag. I explain, for the umpteenth time, that my daughter must clean her lunch bag and thermos before the frantic morning rush to get out the door for school.

“What difference does it make if I clean it the night before or first thing in the morning?” she asks.

“Can’t you understand that we’re always late?” I shoot back, my voice now rising with my frustration. 

“But what difference does it make, as long as it’s clean when it’s time to be refilled?”

I am about to escalate to the next level (I’m not my best in the morning). I’m about to yell, ban all electronic devices forever and banish her to her room when it hits me: She’s not backing down. She’s standing her ground, looking me square in the eye and delivering her defence clearly, calmly and logically. She’s won the moment and I’ve never felt so proud of her for it.

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I flash back over a decade to when I first saw it coming. I am sitting in the breastfeeding clinic, a stranger in a strange world, surrounded by lactating mothers, awkward fathers and wailing infants who refuse to latch. Who knew? The nurse laughs at my newborn’s defiance. “I can’t wait to see you in ten years,” she says. I laugh back half-heartedly, wondering what she knows that I don’t.

As a dad, how do I tame my own assertiveness and natural instincts to emotionally overpower with anger?

So, it comes as no surprise that my daughter is strong-willed. But this sudden assertiveness is a new game altogether and I’m uncertain as to how to respond. We want our daughters to be independent, focused and filled with strength of purpose. Being assertive will be an asset in every area of her life: It will help keep her from being taken down a wrong path by a friend. It will impact her education, professional choices and career success. It will protect her from abusive relationships and controlling people.

At the same time, I recognize the importance of maintaining authority and that my parenting tools from the past are woefully inadequate. This isn’t sleeping through the night, potty training or learning to eat with utensils. While these challenges all seemed tough enough at the time, this new behaviour feels much more daunting. How do I nurture the positive aspects of being willful and assertive, while diminishing the potential negatives? As a dad, how do I tame my own assertiveness and natural instincts to emotionally overpower with anger?

It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve come to rely on four guiding principles to help manage our newly assertive tween.

Be calm and emotionally in control

Yes, I know this is much easier said than done but it is fundamental to maintaining your authority. After all, if you can’t control your own emotions, how can you command parental respect? Being denied makes a strong-willed child angry and an emotional confrontation only reinforces the perception that conflict is the best resolution.

Take the time to explain your position clearly

Things invariably improve when my daughter understands why certain rules are important. She may not agree but at least she knows the reasoning behind our expectations in her behaviour. After all, I’m not here to force her to act a certain way through coercion or punishment. I’m here to enhance her ability to make the quality decisions she will need to make in life. 

Give them choice

I invite her into the decision-making process by offering choices and asking for suggestions as to how we can arrive at a mutually acceptable resolution.

Be consistent

Why would you pay attention to an expectation set one week when you know it will be forgotten the next? I’ll be the first to admit, I fall short on this one. We all lead busy lives with many demands at every turn. But if you’re not consistent, you are sending the worst possible message. Write down household rules and expectations and don’t be afraid to revisit them if necessary.

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In this MeToo age, it’s more important than ever to empower our daughters with confidence and firmness of purpose. By finding ways of channeling your child’s assertive energy in a positive direction, you are helping them build one of life’s most essential life skills.

Which makes a little time spent explaining why lunch bags need to be cleaned more than worth it.

Article Author Craig Stephens
Craig Stephens

Read more from Craig here.

Craig Stephens is an award-winning writer and producer passionate about projects that explore social issues, human potential and innovation. He lives in Toronto with his wife, a writer, theatre producer and podcaster, and their teen daughter — his most challenging and rewarding project to date! You can catch his latest work at