Helping Your Children Be Their Best Advocate As parents, we all want to protect our kids and make sure their needs are being met. Whether it’s shielding them from a playground bully or making sure they ate enough at lunch, there’s so much to monitor. Fortunately, as kids get a bit older, this responsibility can start to shift from being entirely your job to being partly their job. By internalizing the notion that they deserve to be treated fairly, feel comfortable, and understand what people are saying to them, your children will begin to advocate for their own needs to be met. However, sometimes kids have difficulty self-advocating, either because they tend to be anxious and shy, or perhaps because they don’t even realize that they are entitled to ask for certain things. Some children might be temperamentally “laid back” and find it easier to accept situations rather than make attempts to change them. Acceptance can be a really useful strategy, but under certain circumstances standing up for a change is more effective.

Something you can do to help your kids with this is to model appropriate ways of noticing and asking for your own needs to be met. For example, if you’re out at a restaurant and the waiter brings you the wrong entrée, you can say to him, “Thank you for this, but I actually ordered something different. I’d like the chicken entrée, please.” Your children are always watching you for guidance about how to interpret situations—this is something called “social referencing”—and they’re learning how to handle situations from you.

In addition to demonstrating how you advocate for yourself, it’s important that you advocate for your child until he has more skills to do it for himself. For example, you might say to your son, “It’s important that you have enough time to finish your lunch, so I’m going to ask your teacher to make sure the lunch line isn’t too long again tomorrow.” When your son becomes a little older, say second or third grade, then you can suggest that he tell the teacher himself about what happened at lunchtime, and you can follow up the next day to make sure he did.

There are three main areas where young children can practice sticking up for themselves and advocating for their needs, and they are:

  1. Physical needs. It’s paramount that your children have the skills to tell adults in charge that they are hungry, need to rest, need to go to the bathroom, or don’t feel well. These are basic needs that often have clear and easy solutions, and there’s no real reason for them to go without or accept the situation. Show your child how important their physical needs are by helping them to fix the problem when they come to you for help, e.g., take their temperature if they tell you they don’t feel well and give them some medicine and juice if they have a fever.
  2. Social problems. It’s heartbreaking when other kids are excluding or making fun of your child. Sometimes this is bona fide bullying—repeated aggressive behavior that’s intended to cause harm—and sometimes it’s run-of-the-mill mean kid behavior. Because it’s common for children to have arguments and difficulties getting along from time to time, it’s important that they have the skills to stand up for themselves. Tell your child to spend time with kids who are nice to her. If people are treating her unkindly, tell her to stand tall and say in a loud voice, “Stop making fun of me!” and walk away and tell a teacher if problems persist. You can help prepare your child by doing role plays together and coming up with some scripts or one-liners for her to use the next time a social problem comes up.
  3. Academic problems. Every child is different, and while some learning strategies work best for most children, they don’t necessarily work for all. It’s most effective for your kids to advocate for themselves earlier rather than later when it comes to schoolwork. The longer they wait, the further behind they get, and the more overwhelming it is to face the material and get caught up. Encourage your child to raise his hand and ask questions, and to remember that it’s okay not to understand everything at first, but it’s important to let the teacher know when he is confused so she can try explaining things in a new way.

Watch It on PBS KIDS

  • Arthur the Bully: In this clip, Arthur’s jokes about Sue Ellen’s sweater go too far — has Arthur become a bully?
About Dr. Jamie Howard

Jamie M. Howard, PhD, is Child Mind Institute's Director of the Stress and Resilience Program; Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center.

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