Strengthening Your Teen’s Social and Conversation Abilities

Strengthening Your Teens Social and Conversation Abilities

I have three teenagers. One of them is currently in college. If anyone understands the singular communicative nature of adolescents, it is me. I have lost track of the number of times I have gone through the following conversation:

  • Mom: “What do you guys want for dinner?”
  • Teens: Collective grunt.
  • Mom: “What does that mean? Burgers? Pasta? Salad?”
  • Teens: “Yeah.”
  • Mom: “Yeah, to what?”
  • Teens: “Whatever.”

For the most part this is just a phase in their development. I don’t think a single parent in history hasn’t been faced with it once their kids make the leap between preteen and teen. The problem is that it might not be totally isolated to sullenness.

Are our kids losing natural opportunities for building their communication skills?

The Lost Gift of Casual Conversation

Experts say this isn’t just a normal developmental issue. Children are growing up on gadgets, learning how to communicate via a screen and a nontraditional lingo developed through shortcuts and texting. This makes face to face interaction much more difficult.

In fact, there have been studies which hypothesize that social media is contributing to social anxiety and related conditions. If you consider the fact that our kids have had less practice interacting in the real world, this isn’t that much of a surprise. Even friends speak via text and DM’s more than in person.

Strengthening Our Children’s Social Skills

This is hardly our children’s fault. We have developed this new digital world and may not have been preparing our kids to retain a bit of the old one. They have over adapted and now that has to be addressed.

Lucky for our teens, that is part of our job description as parents! It is time that we added communication as one of the lessons associated with our overall preparation for teenagers to take on the daunting reality of independence.

What Skills to Aim For

The question now is where in the world do we start? When our children are very young we go through the process of teaching them how to speak, the words for things, how to communicate their immediate needs beyond ear piercing shrieks.

But that isn’t the same as showing them how to connect with others, particularly in ways that will benefit their academic years, future relationships and career opportunities (and if we are honest, aren’t those the three most concerning avenues we have to consider at this age?).

It is easier to break down our skills sets and aim for those. Here are five major ones to work on, moving forward.

  1. Small Talk – Small talk isn’t the most thrilling part of communication and it is often the most uncomfortable. It is also the one that is going to be used most in the beginning stages of any new venture, from meeting college friends to speaking to a potential boss in an interview. Your teen should know how to politely introduce themselves, remain charming through a basic conversation and show interest in minor details that may bore them to tears. This is also a good opportunity to learn how to store that information for later.
  2. Engaged Listening – More than half of good communication comes from knowing how to actively listen to the other party. If the other person can tell you are giving them your entire focus it will endear them to you. Your teenager should work on learning to actively listen, make eye contact, retain details and use repetition and responses to show that they are paying attention and are engaged in the conversation. Let them experience the importance of this by seeing you doing this when it’s their turn to talk. 
  3. Ice Breakers – A good ice breaker is worth its weight in gold. But it is better to know how to recognize an opening, be charming and confident, and to approach people in the right way. From there you should also know how continuing icebreakers can keep a conversation going past the awkward stage. Point out when you see someone does this well. This will help them understand the importance of it. Also, whenever you can, use a good ice breaker yourself. Modelling is powerful. Teens will always learn what they see quicker than what they hear.
  4. Body Language – If your teen is fidgeting, playing with their phone, not making eye contact, bouncing in their seat, tapping their foot, not shaking hands, gently name what you would prefer to see. They will be less likely to get defensive if you can present it in a way that has a positive edge to it, ‘It’s great when you look at me when I’m talking to you,’ or, ‘I know you want to be on your phone right now, but I’d love it if you would put it down just while we’re talking’. Body language is incredibly important for increasing the impact of social interactions.
  5. Professional Writing – Finally, this one is not about face to face interaction, but appropriate writing that will be used for everything from essays, to scholarship letters, to resumes. Your teen will need to know how to be succinct, impassioned, professional, direct, subtle…there are many different styles of writing for different situations, especially in the professional world. I know from personal experience as a writer that having this skill can make all the difference in the world between having a job and being unemployed, or getting an education paid for by donors or getting crushed under student loan debt. 

 

Let’s Help Our Teens

Our teenagers are growing up disconnected in a world that isn’t built for face to face communication. That is a serious detriment to their future and it is up to us as parents to rectify the problem.

With some help from you and a few useful tools, your teen can bulk up those conversational abilities and come out ready for anything. You might even learn a few things along the way.


About the Author: Cindy Price

Cindy Price is a Northern Utah wife, mom, and writer. She has 15 years experience writing educational content in the many areas of parenting, with an emphasis on teen-related issues, from which she applies and expounds on her personal experience raising three teenagers. You can find Cindy on Twitter.

4 Comments

Karen P

we have an almost 13 year old son who doesn’t communicate as much with other individuals. He and I hold conversations while he’s getting dressed for school, before he is taken to school and even after his school day is complete. He was with his oldest sister for the weekend and she notices that he wasn’t as verbal while they were together. She also noticed that while he was with her that he was on the phone with one of his classmates and the classmate was saying rude things and he didn’t respond back. Once i brought this to his attention he did say this individual did say some hurtful things to him. His father and I informed him that this individual isnt your friend and that he needs to stop all communication with him. I try to instill in him that he can do anything in life and that he can talk to me or his dad about anything and to never be afraid to say anything to us. Also trying to instill in him to stand up for himself and to never be afraid.

Reply
Geri

Thank you for this article. Do you have examples for each the first four skill sets you write about? My almost 13 year old daughter needs help in each one of these areas.

Thank you!

Reply
Cindy Price

Hi, Geri!

Sorry for my delayed response. You pose a great question! One that I could write another full article on, ha! But I’ll do my best to give you some examples of the first 4 skills:

First of all, modeling the behaviors and discussing them with your teen as you display them can go a long way. For instance, while standing in the check-out line at the grocery store, spark up a conversation with the clerk. You can display each of the 4 skills right then and there for your teen then talk about it in the car on the way home. The next time you’re at the store, you can challenge your teen to try to start a conversation and practice those skills.

The more instances you put your teen in to practice these skills the better. Bring them along to a work function, or sign up to volunteer somewhere together, so that they are placed in an environment where they need to communicate and interact with others they have just met. Plus, you will be there to facilitate and help along the way. This is another good opportunity for you to model the skills and teach by example.

Another suggestion I have is to have mini challenges for each other. For example, before a get-together, errand, etc have a game where you each need to talk to one new person and learn 3 things about them. The practice will be useful for your teen and give them a fun way to learn the courage of talking to new people. It will help them find ways to start new conversations and will make them ask questions and really listen so that they can report the 3 things they learned.

Those are just a few ideas. Maybe I should write a blog post on some practical tips and examples on carrying these out! Regardless, I hope this helped. Thanks again for your comment and feedback 🙂

Reply
Huda

Dear Cindy,
Thank you so much for this helpful article. It addresses an issue that’s not so much addressed elsewhere.
I have two teens 13 & 12. They’re not shy and confident enough to do anything they want. It’s just those conversation skills you mentioned especially the icebreaker. My two wouldn’t start a conversation at all and yet blame it on the other party being not interested like for example waiting at the bus stop with the same kids all year but never held a conversation with them.
I loved your article so much. Many thanks
Huda

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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