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.

2 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.

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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 🙂

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Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare

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