Working Around Being Uncomfortable: How to Self-Advocate
Difficult Topics, Great for All Ages, Self-Advocacy

Working Around Being Uncomfortable: How to Self-Advocate

Speaking out against injustices committed against others is easy. When I see someone else being treated badly, I quickly judge it as unacceptable and have very little trouble voicing outrage. For instance, when I tutored at a middle school and saw a boy knee another boy in the groin, I immediately spoke to the offender and then discussed the situation with my adviser at the school.

However, when we are the victims, often we do not feel that outrage, and we do not stand up for ourselves. Sticking up for yourself is much harder than sticking up for someone else.

I remember waiting for a doctor at a walk-in clinic with my aunt, Margaret. I had poison ivy. It was crowded, and we waited there forever. Eventually, Aunt Margaret went to the receptionist and complained, loudly. I was so embarrassed. I kept thinking; Doctors are very busy. They will get to me when they have time. It’s just poison ivy. I bet everyone else who has gone in has just had it much worse than I do. But thank goodness Aunt Margaret had complained because apparently, they had forgotten about me. We could have truly been waiting there forever.

When my husband came home with an unfairly graded test recently, I encouraged him to talk with the teaching assistant (TA) who graded it to discuss why he got points off (and to maybe get some points back!). (Self-advocating for a better grade on a test was never actually a problem for me, but it is for lots of students). He resisted. He would rather just accept his lower grade, since it was above average anyway, and just try to do better next time.

Why would he do that?! Because self-advocating takes time. Because self-advocating is uncomfortable. Because arguing for points back on tests is not “cool” (mostly because in general in America, it is not “cool” to be serious about school).

But the problem with not self-advocating and not getting those points back is that now his overall grade will suffer, his grade will not be reflective of his actual understanding of the material, and if he does not talk to the TA about the grading system, he will not know how to improve for the next test.

So how do you get comfortable with self-advocating?

For starters, your child has to practice.

Communicate with your child about what is fair.

Re-frame his understanding of the experience: Explain that your child is not asking for anything unreasonable, but rather what he deserves. Teach him how to communicate that effectively with his teacher. 

When I ask for a better grade on a test, I never start with that. Instead, I ask, “Would you mind going through this test with me? I still do not fully understand all of the answers…” or “I have a few lingering questions…” Then I go question-by-question explaining why I thought my answer was right and ask, “Am I missing something?” When I do this, it does not feel like standing up for myself; it feels more like I am asking for my teacher’s help understanding a concept. Teachers respond well to this as opposed to outright demands for better grades. It gives them the opportunity to choose to change your grade. While you are self-advocating, it feels more like explaining your thought process, which can really help a teacher understand you better and increase her desire to help you learn.

A problem frustrating parents since homework was invented is children missing homework and then not wanting to discuss it with their teachers. That is an understandable feeling. It is easier to do nothing. Also, he is probably embarrassed and does not think his teacher will make an exception for him because he really screwed up. It was his fault, and he does not want to hear his teacher tell him that. But there is a workaround.

Unfortunately, first, you have to admit to the wrongdoing. That is the hard part, but it is also the first step to getting your teacher on your side. Teachers much prefer students who come to them for help than students who ignore them. So…

Step One:

Stay behind after class until all the other students have left, approach your teacher, and say, “I am worried about my grade. I know I have not turned in several homework assignments and they are very late. Is there some way I can make some of the points up or can I get extra credit some other way?”

Depending on your child’s age and the reputation they have already created, their teacher will be more (or less) lenient. Sometimes, that first step is all your child will need, and their teacher will go through which assignments need to be re-done. Sometimes that will not be the case.

Step Two:

If step one is not enough, say, “Okay, but would you mind telling me all the homework that I missed so that I can re-do them anyway and show you that I do know the material?” (The same can be said of re-doing a test on which they did poorly.) Even if the teacher does not improve their grades, it will certainly generate good will (and an improved reputation) that they can cash in on later.

Moral of the story: find ways to help your child workaround the uncomfortable feelings of standing up for themselves by re-framing the situation and the way they communicate with their teacher so that they start practicing standing up for himself.


Davis, P. (2015). Personal communication.

Your Teacher Doesn't Want to Fail You
Elementary School, High School, Middle School, School Advice, Self-Advocacy

Your Teacher Doesn’t Want to Fail You

Has your child forgotten to turn in a few assignments?

Were they incorrectly graded on a test? 

If so, these are great opportunities for your child to learn to self-advocate, for your child to go to the teacher and talk about making up work or revisiting test questions in an attempt to improve her grade. However, students often feel uncomfortable talking with their teachers about these issues and so avoid these conversations.

Perhaps they feel embarrassed about missing those assignments and by not talking to the teacher about them, they can avoid directly thinking about how they messed up. Perhaps they are worried that those questions they answered correctly were actually incorrect. Perhaps they do not know what to say to their teacher.

To help them, if they are young enough (i.e., not in high school) and unwilling to self-advocate on their own, you can set up a meeting between you, the teacher, and your child. You will be there to support your child and help if he has difficulty saying what he wants to say.

Before the meeting, talk about how you envision the meeting going and what your child will say (with her input). The meeting will probably go something like this: You will sit down in the classroom together and say hello. The teacher will want to know or reiterate the purpose of the meeting. The purpose of the meeting is to acknowledge that you have missed a few assignments and that has been hurting your grades. You would like to make up the work if possible. And it is your child’s responsibility to say that.

Your child will probably feel uncomfortable. So, you can remind them that their teacher is there to help him learn and wants him to succeed. So even if you can’t make up the work, the teacher will probably help you come up with a solution to make sure that in the future homework is turned in on time. Also, no matter what, this conversation will show the teacher that you care and will gain you some goodwill in the teacher’s eyes. A teacher’s goodwill cannot be underestimated. 

Then you both go and talk with the teacher. If your child is still uncomfortable, you can again say, “[Insert teacher’s name here], I’m sure you will agree with me when I say that teachers want their students to succeed, right? Otherwise, we would not even be having this meeting. So, [insert child’s name here], let’s talk about if there is anything that can be done to make up for the missed homework assignments.”

By reiterating this point in the meeting with the teacher, your child will see the teacher’s positive reaction and feel empowered by it. Then, even if your child cannot make up the work, the conversation has been framed in a collaborative tone (instead of the argumentative tone your child was expecting), which will encourage creative problem solving to help your child do well in this class.

Any time we self-advocate, we want to start the conversation (and hopefully end it) collaboratively. Teachers (and future co-workers and bosses) are much more likely to want to help you when you approach them in a friendly way, as opposed to an argumentative way. If you assume that the teacher wants you to succeed, it is much easier to see the conversation as collaborative as opposed to combative. And that is the lesson we want to impart on our children – that to successfully self-advocate, have a collaborative tone and assume goodwill on the other party’s behalf.

Once your child has gone through this process with you, she will feel more confident self-advocating by herself next time.

Sexual Assault: How To Talk About It With Your Kids
Difficult Topics, Self-Advocacy

Sexual Assault: How To Talk About It With Your Kids

Last week the US was riveted by the testimony given by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh. The entire event and Dr. Ford’s telling of her story have left people feeling shaken and stressed.

Talking about sexual assault is hard. It’s something parents naturally want to protect their kids from. But kids, especially teens, are paying attention. And it’s something they may even be dealing with at school (from the reaction by sexual assault victims it’s clear that this is happening in high school at the very least).

This is big news and it’s something your kids, if they are old enough to be paying attention to the news, will talk about with their friends. So it’s important that you also talk to your kids about it to make sure you can help guide the conversation. You want to make sure your kid is hearing the right take away messages.

So do bring it up with your kids, even if it is hard. You can start by asking, “Has anyone at school been talking about the Kavanaugh hearings? What have they been saying? What do you think?” to get the ball rolling.

This could be a really stressful conversation. It’s easy to want to use euphemisms and to soften the language and to avoid talking explicitly about what happened – about how Dr. Ford claims Judge Kavanaugh was groping her on the bed and put his hand over her mouth so no one could hear her scream and how she thought he was going to accidentally kill her. It’s a terrifying scenario and we often soften our language or talk around what happened to make the conversation less scary.

But that actually does our kids a disservice. Talking about exactly what happened helps kids understand and process the situation. When parents use euphemisms or talk about “sexual assault” but don’t explain what that means, kids have a hard time understanding what sexual assault really is. That’s a problem because then what happens if your child is sexually assaulted or witnesses some potential sexual assault? They may not recognize it as assault and they may not know what to do.

Also, if you are not clear about what happened and you try to avoid talking about specific parts or you tell your kids to simply “Not worry about it,” they may learn that they can’t come to you to talk about serious issues. Your children need to know that you will be there to have a serious conversation with them, especially if something ever happens to them.

There’s another problem with glossing over tough conversations: it can increase kids’ anxiety about the situation. They do not understand exactly what happened and why that was wrong, but they realize that something scary happened. Yet they see that it is so bad that you are too scared to talk to them about it. That is terrifying. They need to be able to talk with you about exactly what happened so you can help them understand what happened and what their feelings are completely.

They may need to review what happened over and over again. That’s normal because it’s such a complicated, stressful situation, it’s hard for them to understand it (it’s hard for me to understand it!). Going over exactly what happened multiple times helps them encode the information and helps them start to “come to terms” with it. The real benefit is what comes next: it helps them get to a point where they can take action.

Talk with your teen about what they will do if they ever see potential sexual assault or if they ever feel like they are being sexually assaulted. What steps will they take? Create a plan of action. Or your teen may want to get political. Having something to do can help them feel more in control of these things that feel totally out of their control.

Another thing you may want to bring up with your teen is “What have they learned?” Ask them what they have taken away from the hearing? What lesson are they learning? What are their peers saying about it?

Make sure you know what you want your teen to takeaway from the conversation. Perhaps it is that as a society, we need to talk more openly about sexual assault so that victims feel empowered to say something when the assault takes place. Or maybe it is that kids need to speak out when they see something. If you see something, say something.

Most importantly: have the conversation with your teen so they feel comfortable talking to you about it. That is one of the best ways to protect them.

Empowering Your Child to Learn Self-Advocacy
Difficult Topics, Self-Advocacy

Empowering Your Child to Learn Self-Advocacy

Parents are their child’s first advocate. They are the ones who probe and ask questions to consider every option in order to make the very best choices. It can be a constant worry to wonder if your child is reaching their full potential, especially at school where they are gone all day.

In preschool and elementary school, the parent-teacher conference is a great forum to directly advocate for your child, by asking about everything from the updated recess schedule and the field trip fundraiser to meditation in the classroom and the new music teacher. When your child is struggling with a particular issue, encourage them to speak up for themselves, by coaching beforehand how to phrase their concern. But as they age into middle school and beyond, opportunities for such directed discussions may dwindle; the responsibility of bringing up concerns and making actionable changes should gradually shift to your child.

While it may be daunting to contemplate the transition to independence, there are steps you can take to ease this passage into adolescence.

  1. Build up your child’s sense of self-worth. It can be difficult to believe that you can make a change if you don’t believe you deserve it. Praise your child’s efforts, not only their successes. Connect hard work with worthiness by drawing attention to the focus, persistence, and enthusiasm it took to reach success. Say: “You really studied hard for that math test! I’m so proud you are devoted to learning long division, even though it was difficult.”
  2. Ask your child what they admire in their friends or peers who stick up for themselves. Explore how the friend may have felt placing their request. (Anxious, confident, angry, ready? These are all valid emotions that drive action.) Focus on how they were able to voice not only what they wanted but also how they wanted to achieve it.
  3. Encourage proactivity instead of reactivity. Proactive self-advocacy is more likely to be calm and thought out — and therefore more likely to be listened to and considered seriously. It places the control firmly in your child’s hands, which reactive self-advocacy robs them of. 
  4. Visualize short and long term goals. Keeping in mind what they are working toward, whether that’s a spot in the advanced choir, placement in honors algebra, or admission to their college of choice, is a great motivator for self-advocacy.
  5. Watch your own language. It’s easy to fall on common sayings like “big girls do [this]” and “I can’t believe you’re 13 years old and can’t do [this].” Assigning blame onto your child in this arbitrary way is unlikely to inspire personal change.
  6. Ask how you can provide support. Not every child will want their parent interfering with their school life, especially in middle and high school. Remind your child that you are available to reach out to teachers and administrators and always willing to problem-solve and talk a situation out. Say: “I know you are capable of getting through this, but if you want to brainstorm together, we can talk during dinner.”
  7. Teach the history of dissent and free speech. This can be as simple as sharing a story of when you stood up for yourself, but can also include larger conversations about social change and democratic processes.

Your child will need time to practice advocating for themselves, and it can be frustrating on all sides when they experience setbacks along the way. Creating an environment where they can practice communicating their decision-making will build long-term resilience, confidence, and peace of mind for parents.


Written by Liza Ruzicka, Liza is a third year student at Brown University, where she is concentrating in Education Studies and Cognitive Science. Liza has completed one summer at the Internship in Building Community at Columbia University and is in her second year working as a Women’s Peer Counselor at Brown University. As a future higher education professional, Liza is passionate about mentorship. She hopes to help parents and students apply academic research findings to the nuances of their life and education.

You're Feelings Aren't You
Difficult Topics, Self-Advocacy, The Happy Student Podcast

The Happy Student #73: Your Feelings Aren’t You

Language matters. How we describe ourselves affects how we think of ourselves. If we say “I am sad”, that starts to define us as a sad person. But if you say, “I feel sad” that helps you realize that the feeling is temporary. There is an important distinction between saying “I am” and “I feel”. Saying “I am” is permanent and saying “I feel” is temporary. Saying “I feel” empowers you to take action. “I feel” helps you persevere and move forward and not become that feeling. Saying “I am” can do the opposite.

You Are Not Your Feelings




Instead of saying, “I am sad” and defining yourself as a sad or depressed person, if you say, “I feel sad” that helps you realize that the feeling is temporary.

Feelings are fleeting and we want to ride the waves of those feelings – feel the feelings, but also realize that they are not permanent. Feelings come and go. They do not define us. When we view our feelings that way, it adjusts our mindset and it can help us to have a more positive outlook and help us persevere through tough times.

So saying “I am” is permanent and saying “I feel” is temporary. Saying “I feel” empowers you to take action. “I feel” helps you persevere and move forward and not become that feeling. Saying “I am” can do the opposite.

How can you empower your kids to use “I feel” over “I am”?

  1. Use “I feel” language yourself. Model it for your children.
  2. Have specific conversations with your children about the difference between saying “I am” and “I feel”.
  3. Brainstorm a plan together for what to do when someone in the house says “I am” when they should say “I feel”. This gets them involved in enforcing the new language structure and they will love correcting you. Encourage them to correct you/embrace it. Your kid will love that they are affecting your behavior.
  4. Do some guided meditation. The app “Calm” has guided meditations for kids. The book Sitting Still like a Frog is specifically written for kids. Meditation really helps you focus on feeling your feelings, but also letting them go and realizing that they are fleeting.
  5. Help your kids find the language to use to describe how they are feeling. The more language kids have, the better able they will be to describe what they are feeling and recognize it as a feeling. Read books like Today I Feel… and work on expanding your own feeling vocabulary and bring those words into everyday conversations.

It’s amazing how much what you say can affect how you feel, what you believe, how you act, and who you become. The story you tell about yourself matters. So think about the story you are telling about yourself as well as what that tells your kids. Help them tell a motivating story about themselves by focusing on “I feel”


I would love to hear your thoughts on this episode!


Want to be the first to know when a new episode is released? Click here to subscribe to The Happy Student on iTunes!

Podcast reviews are important to iTunes and the more reviews we can receive, the more likely we will be able to get our podcast and important messages in front of more parents! I would greatly appreciate if you clicked here and left a review letting me know your thoughts on this episode!

The Self-Compassion Paradox
Difficult Topics, Self-Advocacy, The Happy Student Podcast

Episode #66: The Self-Compassion Paradox

Self-criticism can be a powerful motivator. It can also really harm your mental health. Teens use self-criticism a lot to motivate themselves and they also seriously struggle with anxiety. Self-compassion is the answer! Teens often think that if you’re nice to yourself when you mess up, you’ll actually lower your standards and spend all day watching Netflix. Research shows that’s not actually the case. Self-compassion actually helps you be more productive and keeps you happy and reduces your anxiety!

The Self-Compassion Paradox




  • Too much self-criticism can make you depressed and anxious because you are so worried about messing up, you can’t actually get work done, you can’t be creative, and you can’t problem solve. Too much self-criticism and you hurt yourself and burn out.

Self-compassion is extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering.

  • It’s about being nice to yourself when you mess up, just like you would be nice to a friend when he/she messes up.

From New York Times article “The Promise of Self-Compassion for Stressed-Out Teens” by Rachel Simmons wrote…

  • “Self-criticism is their Red Bull” referring to when teens are mean to themselves when they messed up.
  • What’s great about self-compassion is that “it lets you own up to a tough moment without paying for it with your self-worth. This new logic teaches students that they don’t have to be perfect to be worthy.”

[bctt tweet=”“Self-criticism can help motivate us to work hard in the short-term, in the long run it can make us more depressed and anxious. And teens are already way too anxious.” – Katherine Firestone” username=”@SisuFireborn”]

Dr. Kristin Neff says “Self-compassion is not self-indulgence.”

  • Self-compassion is wanting to make ourselves happy in the long run. Self-compassion is simply being kind to ourselves when we face a setback. Self-compassion isn’t about getting rid of pain, it’s recognizing that this moment is painful and treating yourself kindly during that moment.
  • Just doing things that are pleasurable is not actually self-compassionate because it will compromise your long-term happiness.
  • Working towards a meaningful goal and that can involve a lot of hard work will make you happy.
    • Ex: “Wow. That was really tough. You tried really hard. This is painful. It’s going to be okay and you are going to try again.”

Self-compassion can actually enhance motivation and performance, while easing the pains of mental health issues.

So how can we help kids be more self-compassionate? What can you do?

  1. When you start to notice your child punishing herself or engaging in catastrophic thinking, like “I’ll never get into college”, talk to them about self-compassion. Ask them how they would talk to a friend if the same thing had happened to their friend.
  2. Treat yourself self-compassionately and do it out loud in front of your kids. Show your kids that it’s okay to feel your emotions, but that it doesn’t reflect on your self-worth or actual intelligence.
  3. Model what self-compassionate self-talk sounds like.
  4. When modeling self-compassion, emphasize that you must not be the only person to have made that mistake. Often kids think they are the only ones messing up, so it can help to remind them that everyone makes mistakes.
  5. Practice self-compassionate meditation. Dr. Neff recommends a Self-Compassion Break or Affectionate Breathing. You can find these and other guided meditations on her website


I would love to hear your thoughts on this episode. How do you teach your children to advocate for themselves?


Want to be the first to know when a new episode is released? Click here to subscribe to The Happy Student on iTunes!

Podcast reviews are important to iTunes and the more reviews we can receive, the more likely we will be able to get our podcast and important messages in front of more parents! I would greatly appreciate if you clicked here and left a review letting me know your thoughts on this episode!

Homework Trouble
Difficult Topics, Motivating the Unmotivated

Having Trouble Transitioning to Homework Time

Motivating your children to stop playing and to start working may be the hardest thing you have to do any given day. Not only is it difficult to tear your child away from his friends or the TV, but it can also lead to emotionally charged arguments that do not end well. So how do we make those transitions a bit simpler?

Behavior analyst and co-author of The Behavior Code, Jessica Minahan explains the situation like this: You are asking your child to go from a preferred activity to a non-preferred activity. For a lot of children that is simply impossible. It requires significant cognitive flexibility that children may not have developed yet. Therefore, instead of asking the impossible of our children, we need to ask them to do something a bit more possible first to transition them into the non-preferable task later. 

For instance, while asking our children to stop playing to start working may be an impossible request, asking our children to stop playing to start coloring or to eat a snack is a possible request. If your child does his homework in the kitchen, then you have transitioned him to the kitchen already. And if he is coloring, he already has a pencil in his hand, making the transition to homework easier.

Jessica also notes that for children who have difficulty making this cognitive shift a 2-minute warning before it is time to start homework will not work. They will keep going right up to the 2-minutes and then keep going because there is not a good place to stop. Therefore, instead of giving a 2-minute warning, say “We have 5 minutes. It is time to find a stopping place.” A stopping place reframes the situation and relieves your child of any anxiety associated with not finishing what they were doing.

Transitions can be difficult for everyone. Help make the transitions a bit easier for your child by adding in a “transition transition” and by telling your children to look for “a good stopping place”. And let us know how it goes!


Minahan, J. (2015). Between a Rock and a Calm Place. The Learning and the Brain Conference: Boston.