Help Me Help You: Teaching your child to self-advocate

By April Tisher

We are all unique in one way or another, from our preferences and dislikes to allergies and other medical conditions. As adults, we do not think twice to ask for non-fat milk in our coffee. We learn to speak up when ordering food with any special requests; “no onions, please.” Our children all have characteristics and preferences that are special to them as well. I have a child with a life-threatening food allergy and one with special educational needs. Their whole lives I have been the one advocating for them in the classroom and with caregivers, ensuring that others were made aware of the special considerations they needed. As parents, we make sure the school nurse has the EpiPen and that his teachers know about his educational plan. However, as our children get older, they are not always in our control. They go on field trips we cannot get off work to chaperone, they spend the day with their friend’s family and they go to camp. When my son was going on the safety patrol trip to D.C. and neither my husband nor I were chosen as chaperones, I panicked. Who was going to be responsible for making sure my child was safe? Who would carry an EpiPen around D.C. and make sure to ask if peanuts were present in foods at the restaurants they would eat at for three days? The answer was him. He needed to learn to be his own advocate.

It is never too early to start teaching kids to self-advocate. To self-advocate essentially means to speak up for what you need. According to Understood.org, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting parents of children with learning and attention issues, there are three key elements to teaching self-advocacy to our children.

  • Your child understands his/her needs. (This is part of self-awareness.)
  • Your child knows what help or support will address those needs, like tutoring or a classroom accommodation.
  • Your child can communicate her needs to teachers and others.

“If your children don’t learn how to advocate for themselves, no one else is going to,” Shauna Edwards, mother of two elementary-age boys, said. They have to learn to not be afraid to speak up. She said there is often a stigma attached with being different or needing something that is out of what is perceived as the norm. Often though, once a child speaks up for himself others often feel empowered to do the same.  She wants her boys to “not be ashamed to be different and to know that it’s OK.” One way to do this is to find a mentor who shares similar issues with your child that he can look up to. An athlete or other successful adult that has come over similar struggles can serve as a great role model for your child and provide him with the support and tools he needs to feel confident.

The way children communicate their needs also matters. Make sure your child is well-educated on his needs so that he can speak factually when asking for something. He should not use his needs as a means to abuse the system. Make sure he uses his manners when advocating for himself. He should be respectful in body language, tone of voice and word choice. Children often feel badly, different or even guilty about speaking up for themselves. Teach your child that there is no reason for him to feel defensive. Remind him of his strengths and of his rights (in some cases even legal rights). Empower him by allowing him to be a part of the processes. If it is a medical condition that is of concern, allow him to be a part of the conversation with his doctor. If it is an educational plan, have him attend the meetings where accommodations are discussed.

Teaching self-advocacy is a vital part of raising confident children, ones who are not afraid to speak up not only for themselves, but for others. It makes all the difference for lifelong success!