When children are young, as parents and caregivers we tend to be their voice. But as our kids grow and have opinions of their own, we make the shift from being their voice to their megaphone to their cheerleader.
What this shift looks like and when it happens depends on the individual. What is important is we encourage self-advocacy in kids, regardless of their ability. This is not only an important life skill, but also essential to having personal safety and fulfillment.
As a mom and advocate, I find it’s the parents and caregivers who have a harder time with this transition than the kids.
When your child has a disability, it can be hard to step back and let your child advocate for themselves. Since we can’t be there 24/7 fighting their battles, we need to ensure they have the tools to be their own advocate.
Here are five ways to help encourage self-advocacy in kids.
1. Be a role model
I’m the advocate I am today thanks to my mom. In the 1980s and 90s, she spent countless hours advocating for my autistic brother. I watched her take evening courses to learn more about child development (as autism wasn’t well understood), write letters, prepare for meetings, and look for ways to support my brother.
I also remember the many tears of frustration and anger that were spilled over the dinner table. She was the role model that inspired me to fight for my child.
Now it’s my turn to carry on the fight — battling for more supports in education for students with disabilities. Knowing that my kids are watching me, as I watched my own mother, I try to be a role model to help them in their advocacy journey.
For me, it means advocating with integrity and respect. I don’t scream, shout or curse (even though I may be tempted). Rather I make a point of stating the emotions versus being the emotions. I also look for ways to bring solutions to the table instead of just pointing out problems.
I really believe being a positive role model is the most important thing you can do to help your child become a self-advocate.
2. Build confidence
There’s much research on the staggering number of negative messages kids with disabilities hear compared to neurotypical children. According to Dr. William Dodson, kids with ADHD hear 20,000 more negative messages by age 10.
It’s no wonder many of these kids struggle with confidence.
This is why it’s crucial we actively work on building confidence in these incredible kids. If we assume confidence comes naturally, we’re doing nothing to counterbalance all the negative messages they hear.
So how do you build confidence? It starts with making a conscious effort to point out what they do well. Go beyond “good job” and describe what you like. “I like how you used your imagination when drawing this picture.”
And knowing your child likely hears enough negative talk at school and with friends, look for ways to focus on their strengths throughout the day.
My hope is by continually shining a light on my child’s strengths, I can chink away at some of the negative comments thrown their way.
3. Encourage active listening
This is a skill most people have forgotten. Too often we listen for an opportunity to speak instead of listening to truly hear what the other person is saying.
Active listening is an important self-advocacy skill. It is a skill that needs to be taught and fostered over time.
As a parent or caregiver, we play a crucial role in helping develop this skill in our kids.
Take the time to explain what active listening is (repeating back what you heard, asking follow up questions on what someone says) vs. passive listening (jumping off what someone said to provide your thoughts without acknowledging theirs).
By practicing active listening in our conversations with our kids, spouses and friends, we will help our children hone their own skills.
4. Start small
Like any skill, self-advocacy takes time to develop. Whenever I give workshops on “How to Advocate for Change,” I encourage participants to start small.
Practice your advocacy skills in more comfortable settings or conversations. Figure out what works, what is challenging and areas to improve. From there, build confidence to take on the bigger challenges.
With my kids, I try to encourage them to advocate in the classroom for small changes. My youngest struggles with noise. Over the last few years, we’ve worked on ways for them to let their teacher know when the class is too loud instead of waiting until it’s overwhelming which results in a meltdown.
I’m excited to say we’ve had success!
This year my child has developed a series of gestures they share with their teacher, letting them know when the classroom is too loud. This ranges from hands over their ears, shaking their head or just frowning at the teacher.
The best part — the other students have tuned into my child’s needs. And now, they often tell the class to be quiet before my child connects with the teacher.
5. Celebrate successes
The final tip is to celebrate successes — big and small. When I heard how my child was advocating for quiet in the classroom, I celebrated with them.
We had a big high five and I told them why I was so proud of their advocacy. Instead of saying nice work, we talked about why their advocacy was important and how they felt when they advocated. My child said they liked not having to say anything and knowing their teacher respected their needs. It made them feel good.
We talked about the difference between what it feels like when your needs are met and when they’re not. We then celebrated by letting them choose what was for supper — reinforcing their self-advocacy success.
I also make sure to celebrate the half successes and even times when self-advocacy didn’t result in immediate change. The celebration is about the journey and taking steps forward every day to be heard.
I hope some of these tips have inspired you just as my mother inspired me all those years ago. And even though I’m now a mother, I still pick up the phone, talk through challenges with my mom, get her advice and celebrate our successes together.
Maybe one day my children will do the same with me. Until then, I will continue helping them become self-advocates.