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7 ways to teach your child to self-advocate

7 ways to teach your child to self-advocate

Updated: June 27, 2023 · 8 Minute Read

Jeryn Cambrah

Reviewed by:

Jeryn Cambrah


  • Few things are more important than empowering your child to be their own advocate. It’s never too early to start.
  • Support your child in learning important life skills by giving them to opportunity to learn how to make decisions, set boundaries, and communicate their needs.

We all want to raise confident, assertive kids. This is especially true for our special needs kids, who may have extra challenges speaking up or communicating needs, wants, and boundaries. Our fears for their safety, unfortunately, are justified – disabled kids, teens, and adults are at greater risk for pretty much every type of abuse and violence.


They can be easy to take advantage of, and are often targeted by perpetrators because they’re less likely to tell or stand up for themselves. Raising your child with the ability to self-advocate will help them be more assertive and confident as they navigate through the challenges of life. Here’s how you can raise your child to advocate for themselves.


1. Allow your child to make simple everyday decisions.


For example, allow them to choose what clothes to wear to school, what food to bring for lunch, and what after-school activities to participate in. As your child begins to feel empowered to make small decisions, they will feel more comfortable making major life decisions. Giving kids choices also helps avoid unnecessary power struggles, teaches them responsibility and compromise, and is an expert-recommended way to help kids with ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder).


2. Teach your child to listen to their body.


One major struggle that many disabled children and adults have is not knowing what they need or how to express their needs. Some people also have alexithymia, which makes it hard or impossible for them to recognize their emotions or needs, like if they’re hungry or sleepy. Teaching your child to recognize and respond to what their body is feeling will help them not only self-regulate easier, but also express those things to others and get the support they need.


You can start this early on in your child’s life by naming their emotions, empathizing with them, and helping them learn what certain things (like hunger, overwhelm, thirst, or needing to use the bathroom) feels like. For example, if your child is crying over a broken toy, you can say, “Oh no! Your toy is broken. You look really sad. Here, let’s try to fix it.” Those kinds of moments will help your child identify what they’re feeling or what’s wrong, and gear them toward a solution-oriented approach. Creating an internal sense of control over their lives can help your child with their mental health and confidence.


3. Teach your child to set boundaries.


Empower your child to tell people what they’re comfortable with and what they can and cannot do to their body. You can teach boundary setting, power statements, and consent starting at a very young age! As we mentioned, people with developmental disabilities, and children with disabilities are at greater risk for violence and abuse, so it’s important to equip your child to say “no!” Teach them what’s not okay and that nobody is allowed to touch their bodies without their permission. One simple way to begin this is by asking first before you touch your child, and to explain why you are touching them. For example, “Mommy is going to change your diaper now.” Your child also needs to know they aren’t obligated to touch anyone or do things they’re not comfortable with, like making eye contact when they don’t want to. Your child will feel more confident standing up for themselves when you foster their sense of autonomy.


You should model boundaries, too. While we sacrifice everything for our kids, it’s okay (and healthy) to place some boundaries. You can set small, simple boundaries that teach your child that other people’s autonomy should be respected, too. For example, if your child grabs your drink, you may say “I see that you want to drink my drink. This is Daddy’s drink. Let’s get you your own drink.” Your child may be a little disappointed, but disappointment is a valuable thing for children (especially with neurodevelopmental differences) to learn. When we deprive them of learning how to handle disappointment healthily, we set them up for greater issues later on.


4. Encourage your child to practice communicating with others of all ages.


For example, have your child talk to teachers and doctors about their needs, ask for help from close friends or siblings, and greet people like the cashier at the grocery store. If your child feels uncomfortable interacting with others, try practicing those interactions at home with them. You can help your child develop “scripts” for what to say in certain situations, like when they’re feeling overwhelmed, or when someone is making them uncomfortable. Some kids may have a lot of anxiety in this area, so be sure to be patient, encouraging, and don’t push your child too hard.


5. Share your child’s diagnosis with them.


Many autistic and disabled adults, and those with learning differences, report that they wish they would’ve known about their diagnosis sooner. They’ve said that knowing about their differences has empowered them, and having that knowledge sooner would’ve made navigating life easier in some ways. Knowing one’s diagnosis is associated with better self-esteem, a positive self-identity, and can lead to a sense of community (this is true for all disabilities). Some autistic adults say they were really upset that their parents did not tell them about their autism diagnosis, and if they had, it would’ve helped them understand themselves much better, and they wouldn’t have felt so alone.


Tips for sharing your child’s diagnosis with them:

  • You can share your child’s diagnosis with them using age-appropriate language and tools like books, videos, and affirming sources. Maintain a positive outlook and remain non-judgmental. Let your child process the information at their pace and ask questions, if they have any. 
  • A good time to share your child’s diagnosis is whenever your child begins noticing their differences or questioning them. Acknowledge and validate your child’s struggles and challenges, while at the same time reassuring them they’re not broken, just different.
  • Autistic therapist and advocate, Kaelynn, has a great video that shows one way you can explain autism to kids.
  • Neurobears is a course for autistic kids 8-14 and their parents designed to teach children about their autism diagnosis and form a positive self-identity.


6. Encourage your child to dream big. 


Help your child pursue their passions, invest in their interests, and develop relationships. Sometimes we disqualify our children because we think they can’t do something. Other times, we may push them too hard, focusing our attention on overcoming or removing their challenges instead of flowing with their strengths. It’s important to remember that your child has the final say on what kind of life they will have and what they will accomplish. The moment we say our kids “can’t” is the moment they really can’t! Remember, while your child’s path might look different than some people’s, their future is very bright.


7. Give your child a way to communicate.


Communication is a critical tool for self-advocacy. Many kids have challenging behaviors simply due to the frustration of not being able to express themselves in a way others can easily understand. If your child has communication challenges, look into Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) devices or alternative communication methods like ASL (American Sign Language) and S2C (Spelling 2 Communicate). Search for Assistive Technology on our site to find local vendors, or talk with your child’s care team about implementing these tools.


It’s important to note that while most cultures tend to prize verbal communication over other types of communication, it’s not the be-all-end-all. Non-speaking communication isn’t bad and it doesn’t mean your child is wrong or unintelligent. However your child likes to communicate, that’s the best way for them.


More information and resources:


Some final thoughts about self-advocacy and independence…


It’s important to remember that some disabilities, like autism, are what we call “dynamic”. This means your child’s needs and abilities may change from day to day. Sometimes they may be able to do something and sometimes they may not. You can help your child plan for their fluctuating needs by working together to figure out accommodations and solutions they can request. For example, you may teach your child how to ask their teacher for extra time on a test if they’re having difficulty that day.


Take into consideration your child’s current circumstances when you’re pushing them to take more responsibility, complete tasks, or make decisions. Make sure your expectations are reasonable and not too demanding for your child’s current energy, maturity, and understanding level. (For example, pushing your child to order on their own at the restaurant is probably not a good idea if they’ve had a day full of dysregulation.) 


No matter how grown up they become, your child is still your baby, and will need your support, guidance, and help. While you can’t protect them from everything in life, sowing the seeds of self advocacy as early as possible will help your child grow into a more confident individual, and will enable them to better express their needs, wants, and boundaries.