When teens aren’t supported and mentored to develop self-advocacy because you shut it down as sass, back talk, rudeness and disrespect, they’re forced to bottle up their emotions leading to hopelessness, powerlessness, isolation, depression, and anxiety. 

Unfortunately, you can’t simply “command” or “prod” your teen into learning and expecting them to get it right the first, tenth or 100th time is unrealistic.

Capacity VS. Capability

Your teen’s brain developing more complex thoughts, emotions, and feelings, and their intellectual brain hasn’t caught up yet. Their brain is growing new hardware for these more complex emotions, and the software for navigating them won’t be ready for years.

Your teen has the capacity for self-advocacy, but they haven’t yet developed the capability or skill to use it and they need your help to develop this skill. You may not have had the luxury of speaking up as a child. Maybe it was a frightening experience, or you felt ignored and diminished.

I was already married and mothering before I ever learned self-advocacy. I was wound up in people pleasing, being a ‘good wife’ and earning other’s approval so I only said what I needed when I felt pushed to my limit and it came out as yelling or crying in desperation. I wanted our boys to have a different experience.

The Seven Essential Steps for Self-Advocacy

  • Listen, don’t fix. 

Teenagers are naturally frustrated, angry creatures because of the dissonance that’s going on in their brain. Their moods may trigger your fight or flight response, so you jump to fix their problem to get them to stop so you feel safer and calmer. Resist this temptation. Your job is to teach them how to navigate situations without you there offer advice. Instead, step back and listen (take my free 10 Day Listening Challenge!)

  • Empathize and validate

This might feel hard if it wasn’t modelled for you and you might even think you’re a bad parent watching them suffer without helping. It’s not your job to interrupt with your opinion. Instead, use empathetic statements to put yourself in their shoes so they feel heard. “Oh my gosh, yeah that sounds rough”, or “Oh man, that sounds like it really sucked.” Then add validation: “You don’t deserve that. That wasn’t very kind of them.” This demonstrates you see them and helps calm their nervous system.

  • Find the source of the frustration

Many adults can’t even complete this step, so remember to be patient! Ask curious questions (not interrogation) to help your teen uncover this specific frustration. What’s one thing they’d want to change, or one thing they wish could be different? This is a learning process so if they don’t know, love them in their silence. Simply by asking the question you’re helping them ‘name it to tame it’. 

  • Make space for targeted emotions

Once your teen feels calmer and more able to process, give them an opportunity to say what they really want to with little editing, “If you could say anything to this person/situation, what would that be?” They may say “I don’t know,” and that’s okay! Pause for a few seconds and ask if they’d like to hear what you would say (modelling safe anger is REALLY healthy so have at it). If they say no, respect that. 

  • Role Play

Building on the steps above, ask your teen, “How would you word that?” or “How would you like someone to say that to you?” Lean into their favorite character or person they admire, “If So-And-So was in this situation, what would they say?” If they’re having a hard time, suggest writing it out instead. Remind them it can feel uncomfortable to speak up, and that doesn’t make it disrespectful. Listen and be curious, mentor instead of manage.

  • Encourage without expectation

Now that you’ve walked your teen through this process, it’s your job to have their back. Encourage them with phrases like, “I believe in you and I’ll stand with you in this” or “I support and you’re feelings matter”. “If there’s any retaliation, I’ll call them on it (schools/coaches).” This may feel uncomfortable for you, so deep breaths. 

  • Advocate

If your teen comes home and says, “I chickened out. I couldn’t do it.” Do NOT say, “But we practiced! We’ve been going over this for a month!” That sends a message you don’t trust them or don’t believe they’ll ‘get it right’. Instead, let your teen know it’s a process that takes time to build courage and confidence. “I know this stuff is hard. It’s okay. I’m proud of you for getting this far.”

If things escalate, you may need to step in and help. Remember, advocating is not rescuing, it’s standing in a gap for someone to help them communicate a need. THIS IS NOT permission to fix the problem for them so you feel better!

By following these seven steps, you’ll support your teen to build self-advocacy skills so they’re emotionally equipped to speak up with courage and confidence, and create the relationships and career they want.

Imagine if you were raised being supported to understand and express your frustrations? Who would you be if you knew earlier how to set boundaries and self-advocate, rather than being told you weren’t allowed to speak that way and learned to deny and suppress your feelings?

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Parenting is hard. You don’t have to do it alone.