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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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