Learning Disabilities and ADHD Articles

Parenting to Support Self-Advocacy in your Child

Written by:
Kelsey Schreiner and Charis Falardeau
Counselling Psychology Practicum Students
July 8, 2020

This article outlines differing parenting styles and highlights the importance of authoritative parenting for a child’s self-advocacy and agency. In addition, this article offers suggestions for ways parents can continue to support and empower self-advocacy and agency in their children both at home and out of the home.

What is Self-Advocacy?

 Self-advocacy is the ability to recognize and understand what is important to you and be able to ask for what you need. Advocating is one way for kids to develop a sense of agency and be empowered to make decisions about their own lives. Self-awareness is a key component to being able to self-advocate - if we’re aware of what we want, we can take steps to fulfill these needs.

Self-advocacy isn’t always about asking for help. It can also be about recognizing when you need more time or space to yourself or asking for it. It can also be setting boundaries in order to feel safe in a relationship with family members, friends, or other people in a child’s life. Practicing self-advocacy can help individuals better recognize and develop their strengths and communicate their needs. These skills are a part of social-emotional learning and can be developed with practice - no matter the age or learning ability.

Benefits of self-advocacy

  • Enables the ability to make decisions and fulfil one’s needs.
  • Increases self-confidence and self-worth.
  • Builds conflict resolution and distress tolerance skills.
  • Contributes to developing self-identity.
  • Allows children to become more independent.

Parenting Styles

Parenting styles are not fixed; they are dynamic and depend on circumstances in the lives of parents. Research suggests that authoritative (not to be confused with authoritarian) parenting is the most effective style for a child’s overall development including their ability to self-advocate. Parents don’t always fit into just one category; it is normal to be permissive about some things and stricter about others, so don’t worry if you see yourself fluctuating between parenting styles depending on the day or circumstances. 

1. Authoritarian (Low responsiveness, High demands)    

This parenting style focuses on obedience and structure. The parent is directive and rigid with rules and guidelines, with a “because I said so” response. When the rules and guidelines are not followed, the child is held accountable for punishment or discipline.

2. Uninvolved (Low responsiveness, Low demands)

This parenting style is a passive approach. The parent appears uninterested and unresponsive to the child’s needs or wants. The child has no rules or guidelines to follow because the parent is not setting any.

3. Permissive (High supportiveness, Low demands)

This parenting style is best known for being the child’s “friend” over their parent. The parent is warm and supportive, however, fails to set limits and guidelines. In addition, this parenting style can become over-involved, blurring the lines of what is supportive with what is appeasing.

4. Authoritative (High supportiveness, High demands)

This parenting style is about warmth and support while also setting guidelines and structure for the child. The parent is assertive and sets standards for the child, however, these standards are flexible to each child and their current needs. The child feels enabled and supported through the parent’s ability to listen and learn.

Supporting Self-Advocacy in the Home

Self-advocacy is a two-way street. If you want your child to advocate for themselves, be more open with you, and have more agency, you must be willing to create a space where they can do this. How do you create this space?

  1. Encourage self-exploration.
    Helping your child understand themselves and being aware of their wants and needs helps them recognize areas of their lives that would benefit from self-advocacy.
  2. It’s ok to ask for help!
    Make sure your child knows they have the right to ask for help or for specific needs to be met.  When your child does self-advocate and asks for help, try to reinforce their successes by offering praise and encouragement for standing up for themselves. It’s a good thing to know what you need and ask for it!
  3. Set clear expectations.
    Be clear on what you want from them in a given situation. Try to have open and honest conversations so your child has an understanding of where you’re coming from and what you need from them.
  4. Say YES 50% of the time.
    It is important to set your child up for success. If every time they advocate for something you say NO, it’s likely they will start to think “what’s the point?” Of course, it’s understandable that some things they want or need will be followed by a NO. These NOs prepare them for the NOs they will receive out of the home. Ideally a NO will be followed up with an explanation and not a “because I said so”. Ideally, there will be the same amount of YESes as NOs to help your child feel confident that their wants and needs are important.
  5. Listen.
    As parents, we often want to jump in with solutions or our own ideas on how to solve our children’s problems. This is a part of our instinct to protect and help.  However, actively listening to our children without the intent to have an answer or to try to problem-solve can help support them in exploring their own ways of solving problems and self-soothing. 
  6. Give them choices.
    When your child is learning to effectively advocate, it can be helpful to purposefully offer choices and opportunities in which they can advocate for themselves. For example, you may ask them whether they would like to walk or take the city bus back from school. This will also help your child understand in what way advocacy can be helpful.
  7. Give them space.
    It can be difficult when you want to support your child through a difficult situation and they don’t seem to want any help. Keep in mind, giving a child space to determine what is important to them IS support. This space helps them learn to self-regulate and become more self-aware. Simply reminding them you are always there if they need you goes a long way.

Supporting Self-Advocacy out of the Home (e.g., with peers, teachers)

There will be many times in your child's life where problems and conflict will arise outside of your home. Naturally, when you hear about your child struggling with their homework, their teacher, or a peer at school you might go into protective parent mode. Depending on the severity of the situation, this mode may be necessary. However, there are many situations outside of the home where the child can feel confident advocating for themselves. How, from home, can a parent help prepare their child for these moments?

  1. Prepare through practice.
    A good way to practice self-advocacy strategies is to role-play. For example, if your child wants to advocate for extra time for an assignment, you can act out a possible interaction between them and their teacher. You play the role of teacher, and they play themselves.
  2. Highlight their successes and strengths.
    Remind your child of situations in which they have successfully advocated for themselves or used a particular strength that demonstrates their existing ability to further advocate.
  3. Trust in your child’s abilities.
    Recognize that your child has their own strengths and the ability to advocate for themselves. If they try to advocate and don’t quite succeed, it is helpful to reinforce how proud you are that they tried. We want to praise the effort and use of strategies, not necessarily the product or success. It is also important that you not put your own worries on your child - believe in them!
  4. Check-in.
    Ask your child about their experiences with self-advocacy. Listen to what they have to say. If they don’t want to answer, give them space, but also let them know you are there to listen when they’re ready.

Remember, self-advocacy is a habit and it takes time to develop. It’s not about abandoning your child, but empowering them. Being open, honest, and loving your child through trials and errors will go a long way.

Resources and Further Reading