How to Raise Successful Self-Advocates
Advice from experts in Wake and Mecklenburg counties
Parents often focus on raising children who listen (read: obey) the adults in their life. But raising confident kids who can successfully navigate challenges and thrive in any environment may require a different approach. Teaching kids how to speak up for themselves—also called self-advocacy—is just as important as teaching them to listen, says tech entrepreneur and former Wake County school counselor Tasha Holland-Kornegay, PhD, founder of Wellness in Real Life. “While it’s important to guide our kids toward behaviors and lifestyles that we think are best for them, it’s just as important to teach our kids self-advocacy—how to speak up for themselves and make smart decisions on their own—because we won’t always be around to help them,” she says. Here’s how to encourage self-advocacy as kids grow.
EARLY YEARS // 0-5
Will teaching your feisty toddler self-advocacy skills turn them into a diminutive dictator? Not to worry, says licensed therapist and parenting coach Amanda J. Zaidman, LCSW, owner of Constructive Parenting in Charlotte. Self-advocacy skills can actually encourage cooperation and kindness by helping toddlers communicate their needs and feelings without becoming overwhelmed. “When a child feels heard, they settle down,” she says. “You can teach them how to stand up and advocate for themselves in ways that are powerful, not disruptive.
Start by encouraging your child to name emotions as they arise. “Parents can start teaching children self-advocacy skills at a very young age by taking the time to put words to what they notice their children are feeling and the situation that caused it,” Zaidman says. “Practicing this with your pre-verbal baby is the perfect way to try out a skill that may initially feel awkward. But by the time your kids are two or three, naming and validating emotions will be second nature.”
SCHOOL YEARS // 6-12
In grade school, strong self-advocacy skills enable kids to speak up in class, form healthy friendships, and even stay safe on the playground by speaking out against bullying. This is particularly important for students with disabilities. Per PACER Center, a national organization that champions inclusion and advocacy for children with disabilities, self-advocacy skills empower these kids to succeed at school by helping to create their individualized education plan (IEP), asking for accommodations when needed, and ensuring that their needs are met.
In “Helping Your Child Learn To Be a Good Self-Advocate,” the Center recommends including school-age children in IEP meetings whenever possible: “As your child becomes older, the ways in which he or she can participate in his or her IEP meetings greatly increases. It is important to discuss the meeting process with your child beforehand. Role-playing being in an IEP meeting with your child can be a great teaching tool and may help your child to feel less anxious about participating.”
TEEN YEARS // 13-18
As confident self-advocates, teens will be better equipped to navigate the conflicts with friends, bosses, and teachers that everyone faces in high school, according to Holland-Kornegay. “Parents have been around long enough to know that sometimes life just isn’t fair,” she says. “Having the confidence and competence to advocate for ourselves can help us overcome those hurdles and not let them slow us down. It’s no different for our kids, especially during the teenage and young adult years.”
To advocate for themselves, teens need to understand and appreciate their own worth and know how they want to be treated by others. Encourage this skillset by checking in regularly with teens about their relationships and prompting them to consider how they can ask for what they need. “After all, school isn’t just challenging academically but socially,” Holland-Kornegay says. “Making sure that your kids can advocate for themselves will make the transition into their teenage lives much smoother. They’ll know their worth, and they’ll know that they have the resilience and ability to hold their own hand through whatever life throws at them.”
MALIA JACOBSON is a nationally published health and family journalist and host of the Sleep Well Stay Well podcast.