Supporting Speaking Up: Helping Your Teen Self-Advocate

Previously, we’ve encouraged parents to promote youth self-advocacy when it comes to seeking support for their learning and development. In fact, the idea of self-advocacy, or speaking up for yourself and making decisions about your own life, is a common theme among parents and adolescents. As the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” The same can be said for teenage growing pains. As parents, 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 give teens the skills to make positive choices on their own, especially when they need to make decisions without a parent present.

What is self-advocacy?

Self-advocacy is working to get our needs met through a balance of respectfulness and assertiveness. It is a process that involves planning, information seeking, cooperation and taking responsibility.

Self-Advocacy is learning how to speak up for yourself, making your own decisions about your own life, learning how to get information so that you can understand things that are of interest to you, finding out who will support you in your journey, knowing your rights and responsibilities, problem solving, listening and learning, reaching out to others when you need help and friendship, and learning about self-determination. –Wrightslaw 

Why is self-advocacy important?

People who are self-advocates are able to ask for the support they need, stand up against injustices, and seek positive change in their environments. Teens with self-advocacy skills may also have more positive identity development, higher self-esteem, greater social connections, more leadership qualities and enhanced planning and problem solving abilities. The teen years are prime ones for the development of the cognitive skills needed to be a self-advocate. And being able to practice and refine these skills will serve youth now and in the future.

How can parents support self-advocacy?

Decision making is hard. Despite pushing to be their own boss, making big decisions can still be a new and scary experience for teens. Teens might not have the right words to ask for what they need. They may doubt whether or not they know enough about the topic and they may feel disrespected or undervalued by the people or organizations to which they are advocating for their needs. Parents help teens become competent self-advocates by creating spaces where youth feel comfortable practicing their self-advocacy skills and knowledge. Adolescent’s decision making need not happen in a vacuum. Parents who consistently build trust with their teen and share decision-making power will contribute to teens’ experience with problem solving and the steps necessary to self-advocate effectively. Building these skills together with your teen involves a number of different steps:

Point it out

It is likely that your teen is already making choices and regularly advocating for themselves in small ways. Has your teen asked for explanations from a coach or teacher about something they didn’t understand? Has your teen ask for more responsibility or a new freedom and explained why this was important to them? These are all simple, daily behaviors that represent self-advocacy. Point these instances out, commend your teen for being a self-advocate and be sure to label the skills you’re seeing your teen use in their efforts.

Many youth are not familiar with the idea of self-advocacy, particularly because adults have been doing most of the work for them, most of their lives. By staying aware and labeling advocacy when it happens, you can begin to alert your teen to the concept and what it looks like in practice.

Start early

If you’ve ever tried to select a restaurant with a group of people, you’ll probably agree that even simple decision-making can be difficult when shared. It is never too early to start sharing decision-making power with your teen but be mindful of your child’s level of maturity and the decisions that are being made.

A fun way to share decision making is by letting your teen suggest where the next family vacation (or a family day trip) should be. Suggest that they come up with a persuasive argument for why they chose a particular destination, how it will work with other family member’s interests and how they would plan to stay within a budget. Sharing “little” decisions gives teens practice with the skills they’ll need to tackle the big stuff when it happens.

Support self-exploration

The foundation of self-advocacy rests on knowing your values and abilities. A teen who knows he struggles with a particular teaching style will be more likely to ask for support than one who doesn’t recognize the mismatch in his learning style and the teacher’s delivery methods. Similarly, a youth who has advocated for fairness and equality for others is likely to speak up if they feel they are being mistreated, in part because they are able to identify the mistreatment and have experience advocating for that need before.

Take opportunities to ask your teen about their beliefs and opinions on important issues. Use open-ended questions that will allow your teen to formulate their ideas and incorporate their experiences into their thoughts. Consider questions such as, “Why do you believe in ____ (education for girls, different teaching styles for different learners, higher wages for student workers, etc.),” or “What does taking responsibility in this situation look like?”

Promote education

Advocating for a particular need requires an understanding of the problem so that you can effectively communicate to others why the need is important and relevant. For example, a youth with a learning disability who is not receiving the necessary learning tools in the classroom would benefit from knowing the rules and regulations surrounding special education services. In this way, a request for a particular need can be supported by information that is supportive of the goals.

Make goals and how to advocate to reach them a central topic of conversation. Ask your teen what they would like to accomplish and why they believe it is a worthwhile pursuit. What information do they have that supports their goals and efforts? Help them find information related to the advocacy topic of their interest.

Practice speaking-up

Sometimes knowing the right things to say is not enough. Speaking up for yourself can be scary, especially if a teen is advocating to adults. Just like a muscle, advocacy needs to be exercised to grow and strengthen. Practicing advocating for an effort, goal, or need can help make the process more comfortable for teens. Offer to listen to your teen practice their pitch for something. If they want feedback, provide constructive insights into what they did well and how they can improve. Sometimes even saying the words out loud in a safe space makes it easier to say in more high-stress environments.

Ask youth for their opinions and allow them to participate in ‘adult’ conversations. Model for youth the language of needs by sharing with them your own when appropriate. For example, you can tell your teen, “I have a headache and it’s making it hard to keep my cool. I need to take a walk outside until it subsides and then we can come back to this conversation.” If teens fumble in their request for something, take it as an opportunity to reflect back to them what you see as their needs or ask clarifying questions to give them an opportunity to practice forming their ideas.

Facilitate networks

Being a self-advocate does not mean you must tackle every challenge on your own. While it is important for youth to have a voice in their own lives, part of using your voice is knowing when to ask for help. If there is a particular area in which your teen must self-advocate, encourage them to seek out others who might also have an invested interest in the advocacy effort. There is strength in numbers and especially if your teen is trying to create change (e.g., a school rule) it may serve them to have the support of others.

Ask your teen to make a list of who would support them in advocating for their cause. How would they put these individuals to work? (Do they want help crafting requests, finding out information, or just someone to listen and support them?) Connect youth with other adults who may serve as mentors or supports to their advocacy efforts.

Advocacy of any kind is challenging. Not only are a number of skills necessary to advocate effectively, but you must also believe that your voice is valued. By practicing self-advocacy with the support of parents and trusted adults, teens can gain confidence in using this important life skill and parents get to see teens take a first step toward living an independent, successful life.


Article by Dayana Kupisk

dkupDayana is a graduate student in Human Development & Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dayana previously worked as a life skills coordinator at a residential living program for teens and young adults. She has one older brother, and, for the first time in her life, is living in a different state from her parents.