Teaching Your Child Self-Advocacy


With the emergence of COVID-19, self-advocacy is more important than ever. Your kids are home with you 24/7, and you have to tend to their needs for an additional eight (plus) hours per day.

Additionally, everyone’s emotional needs have increased lately. So how can you meet your kid’s needs without neglecting your own? That’s where self-advocacy comes in. 

What Is Self Advocacy?

Self-advocacy is the skill of expressing your mental, physical, or emotional needs, in order to actually get them met. Some people might look at self advocating as the skill of asking for help.

There are three important parts of being able to advocate for yourself:

  1. Understanding what your needs are 
  2. Recognizing when your needs are and how they can be met
  3. Communicating what you need (to a teacher, parent, or anyone else), taking steps to assert yourself if you’re not taken seriously

Self-advocacy is a learned skill. We are not innately born with the ability to identify and express our own needs. So no matter what age your child is, you have an opportunity to help them build this ability.

Why Is Self Advocacy Important?

Whether you’re a child or adult, it’s important to learn to express what you need, so that you can receive it. However, for children, learning how to advocate for yourself is absolutely vital.

We, parents, cannot read minds, so kids fare better when they can communicate their needs. Additionally, we have to teach our children this skill, so they can take it into adulthood.

For example, let’s say a child struggles with reading comprehension. Reading comprehension is something that plenty of kids need help with, and a little extra attention often solves the problem. Getting the need met in this case could be as simple as working one on one with a reading tutor.

The point: Even a child with struggles may perform much better with the right help. However, kids may struggle to express the need for help to an adult–or may struggle to understand what they need help with altogether.

How can a child without self-advocacy skills be helped?

We have to teach them.

Unfortunately, a lot of children don’t learn self advocacy, because their parents and teachers don’t specifically teach them about it. Or worse, children may come to believe their needs are shameful or annoying to authority figures. But there are steps that you can take, to teach your child how to speak up for what they need. 

If possible, it’s extremely helpful to start early with teaching your kids how to advocate for themselves. But if you didn’t get the chance to do that, it’s okay. There are still things that you can do now to help your children grasp self-advocacy at a variety of ages. 

The general pattern is first, to model for your child how to be an advocate–showing them how you interpret and meet their needs (and your own). Second, you can directly teach self-advocacy skills. 

Modeling Self Advocacy

Children are perceptive; they internalize what we do and can pick up on what we’re feeling. So kids may be able to automatically learn self-advocacy from how we, parents, model the behavior.

You can learn to advocate for yourself by first developing a mindfulness of your own emotional needs. From there, modeling self advocacy consists of actively working to notice and honor internal cues and signals you feel, in productive ways. It may not be easy, but it’s important for both you and your child.

Let Them Into The Process

In addition to modeling your own self-advocacy, you can also give your child a more direct example by showing them how you advocate on their behalf.

It’s important to show your kids that it’s possible to speak up, so first be diligent and kind in addressing what their needs may be. Reassure them that it’s ok to express what’s wrong, or where they’re having trouble — that it’s ok to have needs, period! 

When meeting with a teacher about struggles or accommodations, consider having the child present, so they see there’s nothing shameful about struggling. You can also have phone conversations with administrators and teachers in this scenario. That may help your child understand that you are advocating for them, and that they can advocate for themselves. 

Being able to say “I need help” is vital to maintaining mental wellness. While learning self-advocacy helps with family and at school in childhood, the skill will become even more broadly important later in life. 

Teaching Self-Advocacy For Social Settings

Aside from at school, children can also advocate for themselves with peers in a social dynamic. This skill allows them to function well as they grow up, too. 

Self-advocacy is what helps kids say “no” to peer pressure of all kinds. Taken into adulthood, it allows them to reject mistreatment in toxic workplaces and controlling relationships. Self advocacy and related communication skills improve outcomes for romantic relationships, friendships, and even connections in the workplace. 

A child may struggle with social issues, or perhaps they have a bully who’s torturing them. Being able to self advocate in an abusive environment or just with peers is extremely crucial for a child. You can show them that this is possible. 

Here are two ways that you can help your kids self-advocate around peers:

  • Role playing: ask your child to role play a situation where they are having difficulty sticking up for themselves. During the simulated confrontation, you can suggest ways they might approach their peer or defuse the situation with minimal conflict.
  • Practice I-Messages: It’s crucial for children to learn to express their feelings. One way to do that is by using I-messages. Not to be confused with text messages we receive on an iPhone, I-Messages or I-statements are productive, non-blaming ways to express how a person feels. For example “I feel sad when you ignore me,” versus “You ignored me.” The former is much more likely to produce a positive outcome.

Your child may feel powerless, especially in a situation where someone is abusing them, but showing your child that they do have power and that it’s possible to assert themselves can really help maintain their mental wellbeing.

Self-Advocacy’s Different Forms

Self-advocacy looks different depending on the personality of your child. For example, if you have a child who is more introverted, their attempts at self-advocacy might be a little “quieter” than for an extroverted child.

A shy child might secretly journal their needs, or express them in ways that aren’t verbal–and thus not helpful, even though the child does show a self-advocacy impulse.

Your approach should depend on the nuances of your child’s personality and possibly, their learning style. Try to notice how they naturally approach self-advocacy, and coach them, for example, either to be more vocal (for shy kids) or more patient (for those who over-advocate for themselves).

Understand How Your Child Learns Best

Howard Gardner identified different kinds of intellectual strengths that can affect an individual’s approach to learning and other areas of life: auditory, visual, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, logical-mathematical, and musical-rhythmic. 

Understand the way that your child gives and receives information, and teach them to advocate in a way that is intuitive to them. Because, again, there’s no one-size-fits-all template to self advocating.

Collaborative Problem Solving

Collaborative problem solving is a technique where you and your child work together to come to solutions. You ask your child what they think is a good solution and how they believe they can get to it.

This is an inspirational way to teach cooperation and self-advocacy. Collaborative problem solving empowers kids by showing them that their input matters. It helps them recognize problems they’re having, and instills in them a will to seek solutions to their problems–including asking for help, if need be.

Cooperative problem solving also helps develop executive functioning, or the ability to logically direct oneself, make decisions, and carry out tasks.

Next time you notice your child struggling, or acting out in problem behavior, see if you can guide them to think about what might be wrong. Find a way to meet the neglected need and come to a resolution together, remembering that your patience will be rewarded.

Taking the time to teach self-advocacy is an investment in your child’s future. Even for children who seem confident and assertive, lessons in self-advocacy help your child express their needs effectively to you, to their peers, and in the adult world.

Learning Self-advocacy Takes Time

Your child isn’t going to learn self advocacy overnight. It will be likely years of you modeling the behavior and having them practice it. But the effort is worth it, as they can use these techniques with teachers, peers, and family members–for the rest of their lives. 

In addition to your active effort, your child may come to you with questions about how to advocate for themselves–these are great teachable moments. Talk to them about their challenges and help them through in a way that’s actually helpful

As a last note, don’t feel pressured to be the only one modeling behavior, because there are many people who can support your child along the self advocacy journey. 

The expression “it takes a village to raise a child” is true. You do not have to be the only one that shows your child how to advocate for themselves. Many different people in your community can model the behavior. Even your child’s peers can be good models.

All you can do is the best you can as a parent. And you will make mistakes. So will your child, and you can learn from each other. Just remember, you are doing a powerful thing for your child when you teach them to recognize and advocate for their human needs; and it might be a good incentive to advocate for yourself, too!

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