Parents are natural advocates for their children. We want them to succeed. We want them to be the best they can be, no matter how many obstacles they must overcome. And most of us will do virtually anything to help meet their needs.
Some of us regularly succeed; others struggle. While we all have the desire and impulse to advocate for our children, some of us need a little bit of help channeling our desires into successful advocacy.
In this article, I will provide 10 tips for learning to advocate successfully for your child. These tips are designed to work in all spheres you may encounter—at the hospital, at school, and even the political realm. I hope you find them useful!
Tip 1: Take a deep breath and a moment to reflect
Powerful advocates are calm, collected, and rely on facts rather than emotions. As parents of children with special needs, we are often faced with situations that are frustrating or even downright unjust. The parent who responds with immediate negative emotions will be unlikely to succeed. In contrast, the parent who takes a deep breath and spends a few moments getting his or her emotions in check before proceeding will have a more positive result.
Why is this? People who react with immediate strong emotions tend to generate similarly strong emotional responses in their opponents. Instead of actually communicating and hearing each other, you are stuck in a battle of surface emotions that leaves behind the actual relevant issue at hand. Your opponent responds primarily to your emotional outburst instead of looking at the content of your argument.
This is not to say that you should ignore your emotions and feelings. Feel free to cry, scream, and punch your pillow—in private. But then take a deep breath and compose yourself before you advocate.
Tip 2: Be prepared—or over-prepared!
Powerful advocates have to look like they have it together. We all know that none of us actually has it all together, but we have to present ourselves as if we do. Looking like you have it all together is all about preparing.
Powerful advocates do their research and know as much as possible about the issue at hand. They know the relevant laws or issues. They know their child’s rights. They have read up on their child’s condition. They are completely prepared.
But it is about more than preparing knowledge. It is also about presenting that knowledge in a straightforward, organized fashion. A powerful advocate may have medical studies in her backpack, typed documents outlining pros and cons, an annotated medical history, or even a collection of relevant special education case law in her back pocket. She has probably rehearsed what she wants to say in her head, made notes to keep on track, and prepared handouts.
The more prepared you are—and the more organization your preparation—the more powerful you will be.
Tip 3: Keep records and document
A powerful advocate keeps track of everything that has happened, and makes sure that every contact is documented. These types of advocates tend to write brief summaries of every interaction with a doctor, educator, or insurance person. They take names, phone numbers, and email addresses. They ask for laws, rules, and regulations in writing.
Just to make sure, powerful advocates also tend to send follow-ups in written, emailed, or texted form to get absolutely everything in writing. There is nothing more satisfying then pulling out an email that completely contradicts the “no” that you are now being given.
Some strategies for keeping records include the following:
- Keep a log of all phone calls, including who you talked to, their direct phone number, and a one-sentence description of the conversation.
- Conduct important business in writing, either by sending an email or letter, or following up a phone call with a letter or email.
- Keep a log of medical visits, therapy visits, and test results. You don’t have to write much more than the date of the visit, topic discussed, and plan in your log.
- Keep all your logs and notes organized. Many people keep them in a digital format, either scanning in documents, or typing on their phones or tablets. Make sure to back everything up as well!
- Take advantage of tracking systems that already exist, such as using your child’s online medical chart to track doctor visits, labs, or other data.
Tip 4: Know your rights and your child’s rights
Schools, hospitals, insurers, and politicians often deny your child services because they assume you don’t know what your rights are, and what your child’s rights are. Powerful advocates always know what their rights are in any sphere of interaction, and they know exactly what their child is legally entitled to.
It is easier to find out your child’s rights in certain spheres than others. For example, there is a ton of info out there about your child’s special education rights. There is not, however, as much out there about what your child is entitled to under the health care system. But the information is out there if you take the time to look for it. If you don’t know where to look, try contacting an organization like your state’s Family Voices affiliate, or your state’s legally designated Protection and Advocacy Organization.
Tip 5: Learn how to be an effective communicator
The most powerful advocates are those individuals who can communicate effectively. Remember that communication is a two-way street, and powerful communicators both learn how to speak AND how to listen.
The following strategies are helpful:
- Prepare your argument in advance, so you know what you want to say, and can present a clear and organized fact-based argument without strong emotion.
- Listen first, and then respond, noting not only what was said, but also the individual’s body language, if relevant.
- Try to walk in the other person’s shoes, understanding the motivation for his viewpoint.
- First respond by restating what the other person has said, to make sure you understand his or her viewpoint.
- When you state your viewpoint, say exactly what you mean in clear language, and verify the other party has understood your point of view.
- Remain calm and rational, relying on facts to make your argument. It is fine to acknowledge how you feel, but your actual argument should be delivered without extreme emotion.
- Try to balance assertiveness with compromise.
- Ask questions instead of making statements.
- Present as many facts to back up your viewpoint as possible.
- Avoid blaming others, or acting in ways that put the other party on the defensive.
Tip 6: Make it personal
So often, we all get stuck in the whirlwind of rules, regulations, and typical practices. The most important thing you can do as a powerful advocate is to remind everyone that your child is a person with his or her very own life and personality. Share your child’s picture, bring your child along, and talk about your child’s likes and dislikes. Help the other people realize that you are all on the same side, which is to provide the very best life for your child.
Tip 7: Be polite
While a screamer may sometimes get his way, in the long run, you are much more likely to be a successful and powerful advocate if you remember the basics of human interaction. Be kind. Be respectful. Be polite. Ask nicely, and say please and thank you.
Tip 9: Be a team player
To be a successful and powerful advocate, you have to be a team player. Remember that all of those people around you are really not your enemies. In most cases, they are rooting for your child right along with you, though they may have institutional boundaries that they also must respect. Be willing to compromise. Be willing to stand up or stand down when the need is there. Give a little and get a little.
Tip 8: Don’t be afraid to be the squeaky wheel
Powerful advocates are persistent. They keep calling and emailing, day after day, to get the job done. When the answer is at first NO, they do more research until they can turn that no into a yes. They show up at meetings, and show that they will be there and present all the time.
Tip 10: Get help when you need it
Sometimes we all need help. It is critical that you are able to realize when you need help and know how to find help. Know your limitations and weaknesses, and find help to support you.
Sometimes all it takes is bringing along a friend or spouse for moral support. Other times, you may need a translator, medical professional, advocate, or even a lawyer. There are also hundreds of support organizations and advocacy groups out there who are willing and able to help. Make use of them as much as possible.
The following list will get you started in finding help:
It’s Not Easy!
Being a powerful advocate in no easy task. It’s also not something that you become suddenly. Over time, you will grow and learn. It is OK to make mistakes along the way. It is OK to accidentally fly off the handle now and then. The most important thing is to keep advocating, and keep working to become a more powerful advocate.