Helping Your Teen Build Self-Advocacy Skills

If your teen has ADHD, odds are you have spent a great deal of time and energy advocating for your child’s needs in order to protect him/her from life’s harsh realities.  But as parents, one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to teach them how to advocate for themselves. 

So what is self-advocacy and why is it important? Self-advocacy involves a number of components, including knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses, communicating to others to get needs met, and awareness of legal rights. Research indicates that the development of self-advocacy skills is extremely important to the successful transition of students from school into adult life. But self-advocacy skills aren’t something that teens are able to learn on their own; they need to be taught and practiced over time.  As parents, the earlier we can teach our teens to advocate for themselves, the more prepared they will be to navigate life after high school — whether it’s on the college campus, in the workplace, or both. Here are some important components of self-advocacy, along with specific tips for helping your teen build these skills. 

1. Developing Self-awareness  

Self-awareness is the first step in becoming a self-advocate and is positively related to success in life. Before teens can tell others what they need, they must know and understand themselves. This includes awareness of their own feelings and values, as well as strengths and weaknesses. Here are some tips to help your teen build this skill:

  • If he or she is willing, try to have occasional discussions with your teen to help identify how ADHD symptoms affect him/her on a daily basis, including academic, social, and emotional life. This is a great starting point for learning strategies that help your teen to manage these symptoms. This will be especially important when requesting accommodations in school. 
  • Work with your teen to discover his/her strengths, special talents, and interests. Encourage him/her to participate in a variety of activities and hobbies outside of academics. This can include sports, the arts, youth groups, volunteer activities, etc. 
  • Encourage your teen to take a simple 15-minute survey called the VIA Youth Survey of Character Strengths. This will help to identify your teen’s positive qualities that come most naturally. Developing awareness and knowledge of how to use these strengths has been shown to improve well-being and overall quality of life.

2.  Communicating with Others

In addition to helping teens to understand their ADHD, it’s also important that they learn how to communicate these needs to others. High school is a great place to begin practicing these skills since they will need to do this for themselves once they graduate and start college or enter the workplace. Here are some suggestions for helping your teen build this skill:   

  • Encourage your teen to come with you to parent-teacher conferences. This gives him/her an opportunity to discuss what is/isn’t going well, and to work out a plan to do better. 
  • Encourage your teen to actively participate in IEP or 504 meetings. This will give him/her the opportunity to share his own goals and/or request accommodations, based on strategies that help him.
  • Coach your teen on how to ask their teachers for help when struggling. This can include the direct practice of various communication skills, including making appropriate eye contact, asking for help, and/or writing an email.
  • Encourage your teen to take the lead in describing symptoms and difficulties during doctor or therapy appointments.

3.  Identifying Support Systems Outside the Home

Although you will likely continue to be a great source of support for your teen, it’s important to work with him/her to identify support systems outside of the home, as well. More specifically, help your child identify who he/she trusts and feels comfortable speaking to, including relatives, teachers, tutors, counselors, or a coach. Developing a support system — and understanding whom your teen can turn to for help — will be particularly important after high school graduation, as he/she navigates the next phase of life (such as college, the workforce, or both).

4. Knowing Legal Rights

If your teen has been formally diagnosed with ADHD, he may be protected under various federal laws. It’s important for your teen to learn whether he or she is covered under any of these laws — and if so, what this means for him/her. The following two laws are important to be aware of until high school graduation:

  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) — This law guarantees special education and related services (such as speech, occupational therapy, counseling, etc) to eligible students with disabilities, until high school graduation. 
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act — This prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability in public schools. Under this law, many students with ADHD are eligible to receive accommodations (such as extended time on tests, separate locations, breaks, focusing cues, etc).  

After graduation from high school, it’s important to be aware of the following law:

  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — This law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in all areas of public life including college and employment.  Basically, this can provide protections in college or the workplace by providing “reasonable accommodations” for those with disabilities, including ADHD.

Learning to self-advocate is a very gradual process that takes time and practice.  But by practicing various skills — including self-awareness, communicating, building support systems, and learning legal rights — you will be helping your teen to build a strong foundation for life after high school.  

Andrea Yellinek, MS, OTR/L, CACP

Andrea Yellinek, MS, OTR/L, CACP

ADHD Coach and Life Coach, Executive Skills Coach

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