Empowering Youth to Self-Advocate

Teens with self-advocacy skills are more likely to have higher self-esteem, a positive sense of identity, greater social connections, more leadership qualities and enhanced problem solving abilities. Self-advocacy is an individual’s ability to effectively communicate, negotiate or assert his or her own interests, desires, needs and rights. Self-advocacy can be used in many ways, for example a student with learning disabilities obtaining the support they need in school or a teen refusing to have sex despite pressure from their partner. Advocating for yourself means knowing what your needs or values are and speaking up to get those needs met. No one is born with these skills, but everyone needs to learn them. Guiding teens to practice and refine these skills will serve youth now and in the future, especially as they become adults. Here are some ways to empower the teens in your life to become their own advocate:

Encourage self-awareness.

You can’t advocate for yourself if you don’t know what you want, need or value. Ask your teen open-ended questions to help them identify their own strengths, weaknesses, principles, goals, and interests. Once a teen knows their abilities, desires, and values, they are much more likely to speak up if they feel like someone or something is infringing on those things.

Make sure your teen knows their rights.

Similar to self-awareness, teens should understand their rights. By understanding their rights, teens will become more willing to speak up, more invested, and even more willing to advocate for others. If you don’t know you are entitled to something, you won’t ask for it. For example, a teen with a learning disability should know exactly what is in their IEP plan so that they are aware of what types of supports and accommodations are permitted. 

Discuss the art of speaking up.

Ask your teen who they admire for speaking up, and why. Ask if there is an issue they feel comfortable speaking up about. It could be as simple as raising their hand to ask a question in class, or it could be more difficult such as standing up against peer pressure or tackling a cause they want to see addressed. Praise them for whatever they are willing to speak up for. Additionally, discuss the concept that how they say things can matter just as much as what they say.

Practice gradually.

Some teens are more comfortable speaking up than others, so start where they are and encourage growth. For a really shy teen, you should ask them to give their own dinner order to the waiter at a restaurant. For a teen who is already comfortable talking to servers, encourage them to take the lead in their own doctor’s appointments. As they gain more confidence, they can be the one to have a difficult conversation with a teacher, coach or boss. Whenever they are uncomfortable speaking up for themselves, it’s always great for parents to either role-play beforehand or suggest some respectful phrases to get the conversation started.

Question out of curiosity.

Give your teen the right approach when speaking up for themselves with an authority figure. Encourage them to resist the urge to angrily confront someone in authority, but instead shift to a tone of curiosity and involvement. For example, if your teen doesn’t like a grade they received, they can approach the teacher privately and ask “why did I receive this grade and how can I do better next time?” Let your teen know that when they respectfully ask their teacher to clarify a grade in this way, they are showing that they care and want to do better, which means the teacher will be much more willing to help them improve their grade moving forward.

Promote problem solving.

Give youth a say in decisions and a chance to solve their own problems before stepping in. Teens need problem solving skills to be able to put together logical reasoning and solutions that work better for all involved. If you need tips for instilling this important skill, please read our previous blog, Teaching Problem Solving Skills. When teens feel confident solving problems, they are more likely to speak up for themselves.

Create confidence.

Confident teens are more likely to self-advocate, so make sure you create an environment that builds confidence. Here are 5 tips for building a teen’s confidence:

  1. Validate their experiences. Your teen knows better than anyone else what they need, so encourage them to trust themselves.
  2. Discuss how important it is to ask for help when we need it and never embarrass a teen who needs help or clarification.
  3. Whenever your teen makes a mistake, reinforce how proud you are that they tried, praising their effort and use of strategies rather than focusing on their results.
  4. If you ask for input from your teen, act on it. Seeing their suggestions come to life in a meaningful way at home or school goes a long way in building their confidence in how their thoughts and suggestions can influence the world around them.
  5. Express your own confidence in them – let them know that you believe in them!

Model self-advocacy.

Adults are a powerful role model for teens. Model both self-advocacy and advocating for others at home, work, and in relationships in a respectful, collaborative way. Invite them to tag along, when possible, anytime you will be advocating for an issue you believe in. Talk to them about why you are standing up for yourself or for the issue and your strategy for persuading others to your point of view.

Don’t rescue.

Often, our first instinct is to protect our teens and fix the problems that they face. It’s intuitive, and, in all fairness, we likely have more personal experience on which to base sound decisions. However, teens are in a constant state of identity development: they are figuring out who they are, what they believe in, and how to make important decisions. While it is important for parents to support and guide their teens, it is equally important to let teens them make decisions on their own, learn from mistakes, and solve their own problems. Rather than fix the problem, act as a coach or a sounding board to help your teen figure out how they will overcome the challenge.

Final Thoughts…

Self-advocacy is a habit and it takes time to develop. While you might want to help your teen, it’s better to empower them to help themselves. Being open, honest, and loving your child through trials and errors will go a long way. It’s really exciting to watch your teen grow more confident and eventually stand up for their own best interests!

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