Whether at home, in healthcare, the classroom, or the workplace the importance of self-advocacy is undeniable. However, even for an adult, self-advocating isn’t always easy. The ability to “speak-up for [ourselves] and the things that are important to [us]” is a necessary life skill. As young people’s trusted adults we can both teach and model this critical tool to help them become happy, healthy individuals with agency in their own lives.
Self-advocacy is much more than just “speaking up.” It involves developing a sense of self-awareness, thinking about our own levels of comfort, communicating to be heard while listening to others’ opinions. Additionally, it’s about knowing when, from whom, and how to get help. Perceived consequences, fear of being misunderstood, even difficulty finding the right words can make this feel too risky or overwhelming to navigate. These risks often feel insurmountable for young people.
Helpful steps towards teaching self-advocacy can involve the following:
- Encourage children of all ages to talk about their feelings or have conversations involving realistic scenarios. While watching TV or reading books together, we can pause to reflect on the situations the characters find themselves in and give our children the opportunity to consider how they might feel in a similar situation.
- Such scenarios allow for role-playing and for them to consider what they could say to communicate those feelings, etc.
- Concise scripting helps them to prepare for tough conversations. Learning how to articulate feelings once they are aware of them can be made easier with practice. “I” statements are particularly helpful in learning to communicate efficiently and effectively.
- Giving children developmentally appropriate responsibilities can help boost their confidence and build self-esteem.
- Respecting children when they do communicate their feelings and boundaries acknowledges that they know themselves and emphasizes that it is their right to speak up about and for their bodies.
At Candor Health Education we regularly talk about the importance of knowing and respecting our own boundaries while listening for and respecting the boundaries of others. We teach effective communication skills while having conversations on the importance of empathy, what defines a healthy relationship, and what consent looks and sounds like in all types of relationships. It is obvious during those discussions which students have already had age-appropriate conversations along these lines at home. It is apparent in the questions they ask and how they communicate their answers.
Having open and honest, ongoing conversations are necessary, but it is equally important to “practice what we preach.” We can model self-advocacy while interacting with people in and outside of our own homes. Consider modeling self-advocacy at the grocery store, restaurant, even during the not so simple task of deciding what you should make for dinner. Communicating choice or preference and elaborating as to why we feel that way are necessary components of self-advocacy and important for our children to see it normalized in our daily interactions.
Written by: Helen Baker – Health Educator
Battle, D. A., Dickens-Wright, L. L., & Murphy, S. C. (1998). How to Empower Adolescents: Guidelines for Effective Self-Advocacy. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 30(3), 28-33.