Helping Your Teen Build Social Skills

teen girl playing guitar

A New World of Social Expectations

Social skills are crucial for forming relationships, communicating effectively, and for succeeding in both personal and professional life. Teenagers and adolescents are entering a new world of social expectations, with concerns over finding friend groups, dating, and forming positive relationships with teachers and other authority figures. Adolescence is rife with opportunities for developing new friendships, and the models of healthy behavior that will serve one into young adulthood and beyond.

Adolescence is also a time where teens are particularly vulnerable to pressure from peers and society, so the ability to set healthy personal boundaries and to communicate them to others is crucial. Some adolescents experience difficulty in developing these skills, whether in meeting and talking to people, relating to peers, or telling someone “No” when they feel uncomfortable or pressured in a given situation. Parents can help their teens learn social skills to give them a solid foundation for healthy relationships and success throughout adolescence and beyond.

Identifying Social Challenges and Practicing at Home

Social skills cover a wide variety of subjects and situations, so it may be best to identify one specific area where your teen needs help. Whatever area of communication you want to work on, it’s likely best to start small, and to identify what specific steps your teen needs to work on in that area. For example, having anxiety over introducing yourself to a stranger is a different problem than having trouble with keeping a conversation going. Something as simple as encouraging your teen to ask more open-ended questions in conversation, or to have a few topics in mind to bring up when meeting a new person, can make a big difference. Conversations at home can be a good way to start practicing these techniques. Family activities, like cooking together or a game night, are also good times to practice.

Modeling Healthy Social and Conflict Management Skills

A positive attachment with parents, based around healthy conversations, boundaries, and relationship dynamics, has been associated with healthier emotional adjustment in adolescents.[i] In fact, a large scale review of over 350 studies found that “warm and responsive parenting is the most consistent factor found to predict good social skills among adolescents.”[ii] Parents can model good social skills by setting clear expectations and boundaries for their children’s behavior, and by talking through difficulties calmly and with empathy. Modeling appropriate behavior is a powerful way to impress upon your teenager the right way to respond to social situations, especially difficult ones. Even friction between members of the household presents opportunities in learning to set boundaries and solve conflicts.

It can be productive to have a conversation about the difficulties of socialization and communication. Many teens believe that socialization is something that comes easily to everyone else, and that they alone find it intimidating, scary, or difficult. Communicating that the fear of judgment, and some amount of worry or discomfort, is perfectly normal, and that these feelings can be a part of growth, is important for teens who struggle in these areas. It is also helpful for parents and siblings to continue to support the adolescent in taking those next social steps, whether through developing a plan of action together, introducing the adolescent to new social situations, or by offering an ear in times of need.

Applying Social Skills Online and In Person

Like any type of skill, developing social and communication skills requires patience, practice and exposure to new, sometimes unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations. Parents can encourage their teens to hone in on their hobbies and interests, and to consider finding communities online that share the same passion. This kind of communication can be a “baby step” towards going out in person and meeting others, while leading to valuable friendships and relationships in its own right. Obviously, the Internet presents its own issues in terms of healthy communication and boundaries, so it’s best to be sure your teen is aware of what these risks are and how to minimize them, whenever possible.

One of the best places for teenagers to practice their social skills is with other students at school. Creating opportunities to practice is key, so participating in extracurricular activities, like school clubs or committees, is a great way to be continuously introduced to new people and situations. Clubs and activities based around common interests can be especially helpful, since students already have something in common with one another and can use that as a starting point for conversation. School also offers students a chance to form relationships with teachers. If your teen has a favorite teacher, it can be good to encourage them to reach out and connect via asking questions, visiting during office hours, or going the extra mile in their class.

Establishing Boundaries as a Social Skill

Establishing boundaries is an important social skill to develop, especially for teens who are vulnerable to the influence of their peers. Teach your teen that it is okay to say “No” to others if they are not comfortable with a given situation or offer. Teens should also be aware that setting boundaries can sometimes incite judgement from others. Make it clear that people respect each other’s boundaries in healthy relationships, and that pressure from others to compromise them is a sign that someone doesn’t have your best interests in mind. Being able to stand one’s ground and set these boundaries can be as crucial as any other social skill.

When to Consider Professional Treatment for Social Difficulties

Some adolescents may not be able to get over a fear or lack of interest in developing friendships and relationships with others. Teens who face mental health issues, like anxiety or depression, can be especially reluctant to “put themselves out there” and practice these skills due to a fear of failure, judgment, or a lack of energy. Some adolescents may also exhibit avoidant tendencies to an unhealthy degree, or be unwilling to try in the first place. In such severe cases, therapy from a trained professional can prove invaluable for addressing the causes of anxiety and replacing them with healthier beliefs about one’s abilities and worth.

Developing social skills does not have to mean changing one’s personality or pretending to be someone they are not. There is nothing wrong with being an introvert, or with not being a “social butterfly.” However, going too far in the other direction can be detrimental to a teen’s sense of worth, and their abilities to function in social, academic, and professional contexts down the line.

There is no one way to instill social skills in your teenager, but they can be taught, modeled, and encouraged over time with healthy behavior or professional treatment, if necessary. Taking the time to work on these skills with your teen will undoubtedly pay dividends down the road.

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