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“We’re losing social skills: how to read a person’s mood, their body language, how to be patient until the moment is right to make a point. Too much exclusive use of electronic information dehumanizes what is a very, very important part of living together.” ~Vincent Nichols

As a kid, I lacked social skills.

I struggled to make and keep friends. I was needy, insecure, abrasive and obnoxious. I talked too much about myself and my interests, didn’t listen enough, pretended to know what others were talking about when I didn’t, tried too hard, picked at my skin, bit my fingernails and laughed obnoxiously loud. To make matters worse, I was poor, morbidly obese and lacked good hygiene habits that helped further isolate me.

At the time, I thought those behaviors were who I was.

Today, I realize that those actions were how I was.  

As a young adult, a few families and one priest showed me, by example and explicit teaching, ways of being around other people that nurtured relationships. They helped me adjust how I was showing up so that who I was could shine through.  

Today’s young people are severely lacking in social skills.

I’m not referring to differently wired, twice exceptional, ASD, AD/HD and OCD youth whom we expect to have social deficits. I’m talking about youth without any exceptionalities who are growing up without basic social skills they need to get through life.

What can we do about it? 

Model Appropriate Social Behavior

Young people watch and learn from people they respect. Let them watch you do the following:

  • Avoid gossiping by smoothly changing the subject or letting a gossiping session die down.
  • Play conversational ping pong by taking turns talking about yourself and asking about the other person.
  • Listen deeply and avoid interrupting others.
  • Make them aware when they interrupt you, their siblings or anyone else. Do this in private soon afterward if the situation isn’t appropriate in that moment.
  • Smile often.
  • Look for the silver lining, the good in other people.
  • Find ways to make bad situations better.
  • Encourage and affirm them, your spouse and other people.
  • Don’t take slight’s personally.
  • Open doors for others
  • Give up your seat
  • Make small talk, looking for common interests
  • Show genuine interest and curiosity about others without being intrusive
  • Show respect by saying “please” and “thank you”

“Who” We Are is Different from “How” We Show Up

Depending on the age of the teen, you can help them make this distinction. This is especially important for teen boys, who tend to over identify with their behavior, good or bad. You can help them to see that their identity, who they are, is deeper than how they interact with others. You can help them to see, that making changes in the way they interact with others does not mean they are changing who they are. You can make this point most effectively by helping them to see how they might talk, act differently depending upon who they are with. You can also help them to see how different situations in their life might merit different language and behaviors. For example, how you act with your friends and what you say to them is most likely different than what you’d say when you’re hanging with the Pope. Teens usually get this and therefore get the main point.

Point out Good and Bad Social Interactions

Start by asking them about their perception of an interaction or a particular social dynamic that did not involve you or them. This is not a time to gossip about others, but it can be a good teaching opportunity. You can make the teaching point by saying, “Here’s what I saw…” “Here’s what I did…and I said/asked/did that because…” and “Does that make sense?” Then you could say, “I know I was talking with an adult, how do you think that would play out with your friends?”

Bring Attention to Their Social Strengths and Weaknesses

Often adults will fear shaming kids or insulting their intelligence by bringing attention to their prosocial and antisocial behaviors. Many young people today need to explicitly teach them how to be socially appropriate. Some tips:

Point out 2-3 examples of their strength for every weakness. Because we don’t want to destroy a young person’s confidence, we tend to say nothing. But this doesn’t help them. It allows them to believe what they’re doing is working, even when they know it isn’t working. You need to bring attention to their weaknesses, but always start with a positive. Teens will know you’re about to give them a critique, but will still appreciate your affirmation. Make sure to end with an encouraging word.

Give Other Adults Permission to Help

I say this often, because its true. It does take a village. But today, because we don’t live in the village, we must be intentional about creating it for ourselves and our teens. Ask other significant adults in your child’s life to help you teach them these skills. If you are that other adult, ask permission from the child’s parent to begin dialoguing with their teen about developing pro-social behaviors. Too many adults are afraid of offending teens by doing this, but today’s teens respect adults for being direct. This doesn’t mean abrasive or blunt. It means that in the context of your relationship, intentionally looking for opportunities to model, mentor, teach pro social behavior.

Check out The Today’s Teenager Podcast

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