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9 Minutes of Neuroscience: Assertiveness


9 Minutes of Neuroscience: Assertiveness

The following is an excerpt from Episode 4 of the “Raising Girl Shaped Flames” podcast. If you’d like to hear the full episode, you can catch it here and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasting goodness!

9 Minutes of Neuroscience with Dr Diane Harner


I think all parents want to see their girls strive after their dreams and chase down their goals. And being assertive is an important part of that. What we know is when somebody is motivated towards something, it’s usually associated with an anticipation of getting a reward.

That reward might come from a sense of achievement or it might come from making a contribution, or it might come from doing good in the world and making a difference. And what we know is that in our brain, when we anticipate a reward, we get a lovely surge of dopamine, which is that happy, lovely chemical that makes us feel great.

Whenever we get a dopamine release, what it says is that a good thing is happening or is going to happen, so let’s pay attention to that. So when you see that spark in your daughter, when you see her become excited by something or really driven towards something or motivated towards something, what you’re seeing is probably a surge of dopamine.

Now the thing about dopamine is that it doesn’t hang around for a long time. So when you see that surge of dopamine and you see your daughter is really excited and motivated towards something, we kind of have to ride that wave. Some girls will do that on their own and they will just move forward and chase it down and get into action. But there will be some girls who don’t ride that wave and don’t act immediately. What they do instead is stop.

When your daughter doesn’t take action towards a reward, it can be an indication that they’re weighing up the risk and reward that is associated with doing whatever it is they’ve been excited about. When they have that moment of balancing that risk and reward, what they might do is start thinking about all of the things that could go wrong, all of the risks that are associated with doing the activity. They might think about all of the ways that they may be judged as a result of doing it. If in that moment, the motivation that they feel towards whatever the challenge or the goal is, doesn’t outweigh that feeling of risk, then they won’t move forward and they won’t be assertive about achieving that.

This is the moment when parents can really come and co-regulate and we’ve used that word a bit, but it’s when parents are with their daughters in that moment, validating how they feel, but then importantly, helping them regulate the emotions they’re feeling and reframing those risks and those negative thoughts that they’re having about pursuing whatever their goal is.

There is an important neurochemical that is released when we co-regulate with our kids. Whenever we give them a cuddle, spend time with them , we bond with them, we have an upregulation of a neurochemical called oxytocin. Oxytocin is really important with the bonding of a parent to a child. The wonderful thing about oxytocin is that it also calms down our stress responses. So whenever we look after our kids, whenever we’re with them and comfort them, we release oxytocin. What happens as a result, is that that stress response quietens down and then they are more capable of reframing the situation into a more positive light.


We’ve spoken before about how things can be learned. Resilience for example, can be learned. Is assertiveness one of those things that the girls could actually be learning?

It absolutely is. The teenage brain is incredibly plastic and we have to use and  reinforce the pathways that we want to keep in our brain when we are teens  because the ones that we don’t use will go away. This is absolutely relevant for assertiveness,  so we need to practice being assertive so we can become more assertive.


How do parents help their daughters do that?

To be more assertive in the context of pursuing goals and chasing down their dreams, the first thing that we need to help them to do is understand what they believe in, what they stand for, and really help them to connect with their thoughts, their beliefs, and understand that they have value. When you see that your daughter is connecting to something that she believes in, when she has a passion, when there is the opportunity for assertiveness, we need to ride that dopamine wave.

But you know what? We want to make sure that she regulates the emotions around her assertiveness as well so she can be mindful in her pursuit. We want to introduce a moment of pause to make sure that she’s not going headstrong bull out of the gate without considering the consequences of her actions. We need to make sure that our daughters are empathetic in her assertiveness. What I mean by that is that in order to be assertive without appearing bossy, we need to consider how what we are doing is affecting other people.

The next thing is that we make a plan. We prepare to be assertive. We make sure that we understand what we need to do, we do the research, we create some steps, we set some tasks, then execute with empathy.


So let’s say I have a daughter who comes home from school one day and announces to me that she’s incredibly passionate about saving the world and in particular single use plastics and she wants to encourage her entire class into not using single use plastics for all of term three. I can see that dopamine wave has started. How do I then as a parent, take her through those stages?

First of all, we encourage, we applaud, we celebrate, her passion and her drive. Then we introduce the moment of pause. It’s like, okay, in order to do that, what do we need to consider? You know, what are the consequences that we need to consider? How might people feel as a result of, of what you decide to do.

The third thing is that we make a plan. What are some ideas that she has about being able to deliver on this passion and this drive. And the fourth is that as we are executing that plan, we are continuously being empathetic and considering how each action we take might impact somebody else. This is also an incredibly important leadership lesson as well.

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