Family, Kids & Relationships

How to teach your child to advocate for themselves

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Self-advocacy means being able to identify and ask for what you need to thrive.

Have you ever witnessed your child suffer silently through something that makes them uncomfortable instead of speaking up for themselves? Or do you often swoop in to tell others what your kid needs, instead of giving them a chance to communicate that themselves?

As parents help kids build social-emotional skills, or as we teach our growing children to be more independent in general, now is a great time to encourage kids to become more comfortable gently but firmly asserting their needs. Kids who learn self-advocacy skills will become more confident, independent, and self-aware adults.

Voicing what you need and speaking up for yourself are tricky skills to master, so here are some concrete ways to work on self-advocacy — including specific phrases you can teach your child.

Identify strengths and needs

Sit down with your child and help them map out some things they are good at and some areas where they typically struggle. (You can map this out for yourself, too, at the same time. Many adults can benefit from sharpening these skills as well!)

Then identify what changes could help them thrive in those areas where they struggle. This will help you figure out where and when they can be practicing self-advocacy.

For kids with different abilities or learning styles, it might be something like asking to sit at the front of the classroom every day so they can hear the teacher and focus better. For kids who are introverted, it might mean telling people they need more time to think when put on the spot to respond to a verbal question.

Role-play self-advocacy at home before difficult encounters

Before a tricky situation where your child will be telling others what they need — for example, a hard conversation with a friend who’s hurt their feelings, or asking a teacher for extra time on an assignment — you can help your child prepare by role-playing.

Pretend to be the teacher or the friend, and let your child practice what they’re going to say. Or for younger children, act out the situation with stuffed animals or dolls.

Give them the language to use for self-advocacy

Kids may not know how to advocate for themselves in a tactful way, so you’ll have to practice some phrases. Some examples to try:

  • “I’m trying really hard because I care about this project, but I’m having trouble with X.”
  • “Can we find another way for this to work for both of us?”
  • “When would be a good time to talk about this and find a solution?”
  • “I’m having trouble working with this person/material/system. Can you help me figure it out?”
  • “Excuse me, I asked for X, but you gave me Y. Is there any way to fix that?”

Brainstorm alternative ways to “speak up”

Kids should know that it’s okay to speak up for themselves in many different situations, even when someone else seems to be in charge — but there are many different ways to practice self-advocacy.

For example, they can ask follow-up questions during a doctor or therapist visit — or they can write an email later explaining their thoughts after the visit. They can self-advocate by speaking directly to a teacher after class, or they can ask a school counselor for advice. They can tell their parents something important either verbally or in a written note.

But make sure they know that being honest and direct is always most effective (so no anonymous, passive-aggressive social media comments, please).

Practice using their voice in everyday situations

Don’t wait for something really hard to come up to start practicing self-advocacy. Kids can get used to identifying and asking for what they need during everyday life. For instance:

  • Let them order for themselves at restaurants, even (especially!) if they have special requests or allergies.
  • Encourage them to ask an employee for help when they’re looking for something in a store or in other customer service situations.
  • Let them explain the reason for the visit in their own words at the doctor’s office.
  • Have kids craft their own emails to teachers.

Of course kids might need a lot of support at first (with reminders of what to say, etc.), and that’s okay, but you’ll see their confidence grow the more you let them take the lead during these encounters.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.