Self-advocacy for teenagers: what it is and why it’s important
Self-advocacy is speaking up for yourself and your rights by communicating your needs, rights and values.
Teenagers can self-advocate by making decisions about what they want and asking for help when they need it.
For example, teenagers might ask for help if they don’t understand something in class, or they might make decisions about what subjects to study at school.
Self-advocacy is important because it can help teenagers to:
- do well at school and work
- have positive friendships and respectful relationships
- manage tricky situations with peers
- develop independence
- have better health outcomes
- set goals and achieve them.
Self-advocacy skills for teenagers
For self-advocacy, teenagers need to develop:
- a strong sense of their identity and values
- confidence to express themselves
- decision-making skills
- problem-solving skills
- personal boundaries
- the ability to manage their emotions
- an understanding of rights and responsibilities.
To develop self-advocacy skills, teenagers need supportive homes, schools and communities where they can set and achieve goals and feel a sense of belonging. Positive relationships at home, strong parent-school relationships and strong community connections can help.
Developing teenagers’ self-advocacy skills
You can help your child develop the skills they need for self-advocacy.
A strong sense of self and values
To self-advocate, teenagers need to understand who they are and what’s important to them. There are many ways to help your child understand themselves and their values, strengths and needs.
For example, you can ask your child what they think about issues in the media or daily life and actively listen to their opinion.
Or you could help your child connect their successes and challenges with their strengths and needs. For example, ‘I could see that your friend felt better after talking to you today. It shows how good you are at listening to others’ or ‘I can see you’re struggling to plan your English essay. What can we do to help?’
Role-play is a good way to build teenagers’ confidence for self-advocacy.
For example, if your child is worried about asking their teacher for help, you and your child could role-play talking to the teacher. If your child plays the teacher’s role to start with, you can show your child how to ask the question. Then you can switch roles so your child can practise asking. Your child’s confidence will grow if you give specific, positive feedback. For example, ‘You spoke slowly and clearly – well done’.
Also, if your child starts with small steps towards self-advocacy, they’re more likely to succeed and build confidence. For example, if your child is worried about speaking to the teacher, they could send an email before speaking directly to them.
Goals reflect what’s important to your child and what’s worth speaking up for. You can encourage your child to say what they want to achieve – their goals – and how they can work towards them.
For example, you could help your child plan the steps to a goal like getting a casual job or a role in the school musical, including what to write in a job application or what to say to the drama teacher.
Your child’s decisions reflect what’s important to them and what’s worth speaking up for. This means decision-making skills are important to self-advocacy. You can help your child practise these skills with family decisions.
For example, you might be deciding what to do for a family holiday. This is a great opportunity for your child to research options, consider pros and cons, say what they want, and work towards a shared and informed decision.
Your child might sometimes make a decision you don’t agree with. If it’s still a safe decision, it’s OK.
For example, your child might be doing more than their fair share of a group task at school. To solve this problem, they might need to say that their workload is too heavy and work with group members on a fairer arrangement.
Your child’s personal boundaries are the limits and rules that keep your child safe and comfortable. When children have a clear understanding of their personal boundaries, they can stand up for them and keep themselves safe as they become more independent.
Talking to your child about how to give and get consent can help them develop the skills to self-advocate for their personal boundaries. Your child can also practise setting personal boundaries in simple ways, like saying no if they don’t want their photo taken.
Ability to manage emotions
To self-advocate successfully, teenagers need to be able to self-regulate and understand and manage their reactions to feelings and things happening around them. This can help your child stay calm and polite when they speak up about something that matters to them.
Rights and responsibilities
It’s important for your child to understand that their rights come with responsibilities. Self-advocacy skills help your child exercise their rights while being responsible for their actions.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child can help you start a conversation with your child about their rights and responsibilities to respect other people’s rights. For example, you could talk with your child about treating others with the respect and consideration they expect for themselves.
There are many ways to encourage your child to take responsibility for their decisions and actions. For example, if your child has decided to do lawn mowing to save money to go on a trip with their sports team, talk with them about the responsibilities they’re committing to with mowing lawns, like being on time.
Coaching and mentoring teenagers in self-advocacy
Your child might need you to mentor or coach them through opportunities for self-advocacy.
Here are examples of how you could do this.
Example 1: handling social media behaviour
Some of your child’s friends are being disrespectful to each other on social media, and your child wants to talk to them about removing comments.
You could help your child create a script and practise what they’re going to say. For example, they might say, ‘The stuff you’ve been posting online makes me uncomfortable. It could be hurtful to Shani. This isn’t the kind of people we want to be. Let’s delete it’.
You could also offer to help your child contact the social media platform or the eSafety Commissioner to get the content removed.
Example 2: asking for help in class
Your child is struggling to write an English essay, but they’re not sure how to ask their teacher for help.
You could help your child work out what support they need – for example, help with planning what to write and how to ask their teacher. You could write a script together and then role-play it. Or they could draft an email to their teacher, which you could give feedback on before they send it.
You could also ask whether they’d like you to contact their teacher and advocate for them.
Example 3: resolving a disagreement with a coach
Your child has had a disagreement with their sports coach, and they feel their feelings and views aren’t being respected. You can help your child decide the best way to handle the situation by weighing up the pros and cons of different options like speaking to the coach or sending an email.
When self-advocacy goes well for your child, you can boost your child’s confidence by giving them descriptive praise. For example, ‘I really liked how calm you were when you told your sister she’d hurt your feelings’. Sometimes self-advocacy won’t go so well. In these situations, you can talk with your child about what happened and remind them that it’s OK to ask for help.
Self-advocacy in action: examples for teenagers
When your child sees other people self-advocate effectively, it can reinforce the importance of self-advocacy to your child.
This can start with you. For example, if you’re having a hard day, tell your child how you’re feeling and let them know what you need. You might say, ‘I had a hard day at work, and I’m feeling a bit sad. Could you give me 5 minutes alone, please? That’ll help me feel better’.
And you can tell your child about times when you or a family member have used self-advocacy. For example, you could share a story about when you had to self-advocate to discuss your workload with your manager at work. You could also ask your child what they thought about how you handled the situation and ask them for constructive feedback.
You can also talk about how a character in a movie or TV show self-advocates.