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 shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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