Teaching kids self-advocacy skills

Heather Gray//May 23, 2023

Teaching kids self-advocacy skills

Heather Gray//May 23, 2023

Self-advocate and boundaries are terms often used and misused in schools, friend groups, and social situations. But what does advocating for yourself mean? What are healthy boundaries, and how do we teach them to our children? I can’t answer these questions in one blog, but I can start the dialogue that we each need to have with our own kids.    

My kids are great at telling me their boundaries. They are awesome at advocating for themselves when they are “too busy” to practice trumpet, or do their chores. In fact, if there was a grade for “clever ways to tell your mom you aren’t going to listen,” they would get an A, or five stars, two thumbs up, or whatever the highest score is!  Even with a flat out, “No!”, they are convincing. But, don’t let their self advocation skills fool you, there are things they need to do and I don’t care how many people are left in the FortNite game. The trash needs to go out, now. But yet, they persist. They struggle against it. I win every time (at least I think, sometimes this process gets me very weary), but still they argue, they state the facts (ummm…debatable), they have reasons, and “whys” and varieties of “because.” It is all Oscar worthy.  

However, outside of our home, they can’t. Or they won’t. I’m not sure which one it is. My kids rarely stand up for themselves in situations where they should, and it happens even less when adults are involved. When my daughter struggles with her piano music, she doesn’t say, “Hey, Mrs. Piano Teacher, I don’t understand this part,” she lets the teacher think she didn’t practice and tries through desperate fingers to get the song right. Or, when the principal thought my son did something he didn’t do, he was so afraid of talking back to a teacher that he didn’t defend himself or explain that he didn’t do what he was being accused of.    

Why this contrast? Why can they demonstrate the skills (however misguided) at home and in public, do nothing?  

I think the one issue is that at home, in these moments of “You have to practice trumpet,” I need to stop enforcing the law, so to speak, when I feel like my kids are trying to get one over on me, and instead teach them how to advocate for themselves. I need to teach them the skills in every environment in a respectable, kind, and age appropriate way. Trust me, we have plenty of opportunities to make my kids successful at this!  

As much as I want my kids to advocate for themselves, there are criteria that they need to abide by, especially when addressing adults.

  1. Never, ever yell. Yeah, that nonsense they do at home when they don’t want to put away their clothes. That’s a big “No, no.” No teacher, principal or any adult will want to hear what they have to say if they say it out of anger, frustration, or just loudly. 
  2. Speak respectfully, using terms like, Mr., Mrs., Dr., or whatever is appropriate. And “hey you!” is never OK. 
  3. Use “I statements” and try not to blame other people. This can be tricky, especially if someone else really is to blame, but they can’t start by blaming someone else. Have your child practice telling you how they feel and explain their role in a situation, without bringing the wrongs of the other person/party into the discussion.   
  4. And lastly, they can ask for help from a parent if they feel uncomfortable. Remind your child that they can and should rely on you. Even at school. Even at someone else’s house. The doctor, the dentist, the pool. A child who feels supported will ultimately require less support and become more self-reliant.

And here are a few ideas for helping your child move from determined resistance to learning how to self-advocate

1. When your child is screaming/yelling “No!”  

Try saying things like, “I can’t understand you when you talk so loud.” Or, even a confused, “What?” Or, whisper your response. They can’t hear you over their yelling and will have to stop. They hate this. Trust me. When they calm down, this is a great opportunity to model appropriate volume and tone.  

2. When your child says something like, ‘But I hate the dishes!”  

Try asking a question to reframe what they said. “You hate the dishes. Did you mean, ‘I am tired, is it OK to do them later,’”?  Give them appropriate words to ask for more time, a break, or help. I really do hate the dishes, that’s why I put it on the chore list.  

3.  When loud words are accompanied by aggressive behaviors, such as kicking the wall, stomping, or slamming doors. 

Prompt your child to label their feelings. Offer suggestions, “Are you feeling angry, frustrated, tired?” Or if you have kids that just need to snap out of it, offer suggestions that are clearly wrong and consequently, funny. This works really well for one of my children. When she is very angry, I tell her she looks really happy and I am so glad to see she is smiling while doing her chores.  She starts laughing, and those terrible struggles to get her to cooperate are no longr happening.   

Many times, when children are given the language to express themselves, they realize what they should be doing, and realize that how they feel matters. When they see that appropriate words and language gets them more of what they want, they practice the behavior more and require less help. Which is ultimately what we want.   

And home is a great place to practice! Use those tough parenting moments to your advantage. And if you’ve messed up, don’t worry. If your kids are anything like mine, they will provide more opportunities to make up for it!  

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