8 Ways to Help Your Child Speak for Themselves

By Michele Borba, Ed.D.
Help Your Child Speak for Themselves: A mature Hispanic woman, in her 40s, walking with her mixed race Hispanic and African-American 11 year old daughter outdoors in their residential neighborhood. Her arm is around her the girl's shoulders as they cross a street. They are looking at each other with serious expressions. Perhaps mom is giving her daughter a pep talk or offering some motherly advice.

As parents, we often jump in and speak for our children. We handle things for them because we mean well and want to protect them. But this doesn’t do our kids any favors. We need to help them speak for themselves.

Each time we solve our children’s problems and speak up in their place, we take away some of their power to figure things out on their own. While we may be doing this in part to calm our own nervousness and worries about wanting them to succeed, in the end it prevents our children from gaining confidence and learning to stand up for themselves.

When you get out of their way, you’ll discover that your kids don’t have to turn to you for every problem. Even if they struggle at first, eventually your children will develop an awareness of their own strength and can say, “I’ve got this.” They will find their own voice and develop self- confidence from the inside out.

Here are eight tips to help your kids to start speaking up and build the resilience they need to cope with life’s curveballs:

Start noticing when you’re doing all the talking.

Yes, you may mean well, but this prevents your child from thinking for themselves. You may be even more likely to “rescue” your child if they are shy. Resist this urge and soon your child will realize that you expect them to come up with their own responses in conversations, even if it takes a while.

Make space for your child to start speaking for themselves.

Practice stepping back and waiting patiently for your child to figure out a solution to a problem they are presented with. Give them plenty of time to warm up and allow them the time and space to come through with their response. Take this approach even for little things—it’s the simple everyday experiences that will add up and teach them to manage their own voice.

Give them opportunities to speak out at home.

Kids need practice in finding their voice and developing opinions so they can confidently voice their views. The “Three As” can help your child develop strong reasoning and ethical assertiveness:

ALLOW DISAGREEMENT. The best place for kids to learn to speak up is at home, so hold family meetings to address anything from family concerns (allowances, chores) to world issues (poverty, bullying). Set clear rules, like, “Everyone gets a turn and has equal airtime. Listen to each person’s full idea. No put-downs allowed.” Encourage your child to express opinions and when disagreements come up, help them offer a strong “why.”

ASK QUESTIONS. Use prompts to help kids think about moral issues and defend their views. Such as, “Who do you admire? List three of that person’s admirable qualities.” Or, “Describe an incident or event from which you learned a lesson the hard way.”

ASSERT BELIEFS. Kids need our permission to speak up and recognize that we expect them to do the right thing. And we must teach kids that having integrity isn’t easy, standing up for moral beliefs is hard, and peer pressure is intense. Practice together until they can do so without guidance.

Get them comfortable with taking risks.

Support your child by giving them permission to stray off course. Let them know they can be passionate about their original ideas and willing to defend them, even if it means deviating from the norm. Further, encourage them to stretch their comfort zones by taking a few small

risks: “Write down your thoughts first so eventually you have courage to share them with the class. If you’re not ready, tell your teacher those thoughts after class.”

Come up with a script and practice it until they are comfortable speaking for themselves.

Sooner or later your child will need to talk one-on-one with a coach, a teacher or a peer. This is a good time to help them plan what they would like to say and practice it ahead of time. Remind them, “Hey, you’ve got this. Let’s practice what you want to say together. Or, you can rehearse it in front of a mirror until you can do it on your own.”

Show them how to stand up for themselves.

Emphasize that while you can’t control what another person says or does, you can control how you respond.

Help your child learn to self-advocate by using the CALM strategy:

CHILL. Take a deep breath and recognize any strong emotions that have arisen (anger, sadness, frustration). Resist the urge to react without thinking.

ASSERT. Brainstorm a few assertive lines that your child can say in difficult situations like, “Not cool.”“Cut it out.”“I don’t want to!” Firm, short statements work best.

LOOK STRONG. Kids are taken less seriously if they look vulnerable, so teach assertive body language: “Hold your head high and look at people eye-to-eye, pull your shoulders back, keep your arms at your sides, and keep your feet placed firmly on the ground.”

MEAN IT. Help your child practice assertive voice tone; it should be strong and firm, but not yelling or angry.

Practice every day.

As a rule, try to encourage your kids to speak for themselves in age-appropriate ways at least once a day. Coach younger children to raise their hand to answer a question in class or to place their own food order at restaurants. Older kids can call to schedule their own doctor appointments or apply for summer jobs without your supervision.

Remind them (and yourself) that it’s okay if they struggle.

Explain to your children that setbacks and mistakes are okay. If they mess up, encourage them to try again. Ultimately, these challenges will help your kids grow. And remember that as a parent, watching them struggle may be very difficult for you as well. Resist the urge to rescue them.

Keep in mind that your goal as a parent is to prepare your kids to live without you someday. It’s never too early to start helping them build their independence. Give them plenty of encouragement and praise. Celebrate successes, however big or small. It’s not easy for children to push themselves outside of their comfort zones, so be sure to let them know they are doing a great job. Your faith in their abilities will encourage them to keep speaking up and increase their confidence.

By helping our kids speak for themselves, we are setting them up to follow their own path and live up to their full potential with confidence and joy.

Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine, is an internationally renowned educational psychologist and an expert in parenting, bullying and character development. She lives in Palm Springs, Calif., with her husband and is the mother of three grown sons.

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