Struggling teens often lose their voice. Teens that are traumatized are often too scared or anxious to use their voice. Teens battling depression or other mental illnesses lack energy to use their voice. And teens in difficult relationships frequently don’t believe their voice has value or worth.  All this leads to teens doubting themselves and losing trust in the validity of their voice. 

One of the goals we frequently set for these teens is to “find and practice utilizing their voice.” This starts with small things like sharing their likes and dislikes such as their favorite movie or music genre. And then grows to more challenging tasks like expressing differences while staying in relationship, practicing healthy confrontation, or identifying their needs and asking for them to be met. We often use self-advocating to describe this latter process. The goal being that they know and trust themselves to advocate for their needs to be met in healthy ways.

However, we frequently experience an “over-correction” when a teen begins to find their voice. They sometimes are enthralled with the power of it so much that they wield it for more than getting their needs met. This is the shadow side of self-advocacy: manipulation.

So, what’s the difference between self-advocating and manipulating? And how can you encourage your teen to use their voice in a healthy way?  Here are some tips to help distinguish and encourage self-advocacy:

  1. Manipulation misuses power. This might seem obvious, but it’s helpful to consider how much power your teen actually has. Teens should have more power than children. If teens experience caregivers as controlling or coddling, they will often resort to manipulation to experience a bit more power. On the other hand, teens should not have all the power of adults in their lives because they aren’t fully developed enough cognitively to handle the resulting responsibilities.  Families can help minimize manipulation by giving teens an age appropriate dose of power.  
  2. Manipulation is weak. It’s the easy way out, it’s a win for the teen only, and usually quite selfish. It shortcuts ownership, responsibility, investment in relationships, and might even emerge as entitlement. Self advocacy actually takes initiative. The hallmark of this is that life is actually improved for everyone involved, not just the teen.  Of course there are sacrifices. Life won’t be easy as the caregiver of a teen. But families that foster win/win scenarios and reward initiative are more likely to develop self-advocating teens. 
  3. Manipulation creates distance. If you feel yourself being pushed away, that’s a good indicator that manipulation is occurring. Self-advocacy will actually bring the relationship closer. Sharing needs and wants is a vulnerable act, and in healthy relationships, that will actually create more warmth and empathy. Families that help create the safety for needs to be expressed will experience more “felt closeness.”

Your teen’s voice is valid and valuable! Creating a family culture that honors their voice helps cultivate bravery, initiative, and trust, all of which are key ingredients necessary for teens to find their voice and learn to self-advocate. 


-By CRA Clinical Director, Stacey Ruberg, MA, LMHC