How To Help Your Older Teenager With Their Social Awkwardness
This site is primarily a resource for people who are shy and socially awkward themselves. This article is one of a handful on how to help someone else in your life who is dealing with those problems. What can you do as a parent if you have an older teenage son or daughter who seems to struggle in social situations?
If a parent has a child with social difficulties, there are some rough ways that can play out. In some cases the child clearly has challenges from a fairly early age, to the point where it seems appropriate for parents and the school to step in and try to help. There are many ways to help a younger child learn interpersonal skills: Direct teaching, social skills training groups, seeing a counselor to assess whether there are developmental differences in play, and so on. Any help they receive as an older teenager will be a continuation of the support they've been getting for years.
Another scenario, the one that will likely apply to the majority of the parents reading this article, is when the child always came across as a bit quiet or different, but they seemed happy enough growing up. Maybe they didn't have friends over that often or had non-mainstream hobbies, but they never seemed awkward enough that any flags were raised or any interventions were made. If they were seen as anything it was as a late bloomer, someone who would come out of their shell in their own time. However, now that they're in that 16-19 age range it's suddenly become clear that they're pretty behind their peers socially. Again, what can you do as a parent to help?
First, don't feel you've failed as a parent because your child is awkward, or because you didn't step in earlier
Parents want the best for their kids. They can also be prone to feeling guilty or blaming themselves if their children are going through a tough time. If your son or daughter is having social problems don't be too hard on yourself. The fact is that some kids are just going to turn out shy and awkward and there really isn't much anyone can do. It's just wired into their temperament and personality.
Also, if you're the parent of an awkward older teenager, don't beat yourself up for not recognizing the problem earlier and intervening to try to limit the damage. As I said earlier, most likely when your kid was younger they didn't seem to have too many problems. Sure they may have always been a little hesitant or quirky, but not enough to set off any alarms. Also, sometimes a person's social awkwardness doesn't fully appear until they're in mid-to-late adolescence. They may have managed fine when they were in middle school and early high school then found they couldn't handle the social challenges that being a bit older brought with it. Traits and behaviors that served them fine in the past may suddenly not go over as well with more mature peers.
Overall there's not a huge amount you can do. Your child's awkwardness is something they mostly have to work through on their own
As much as I'd like to list a bunch of tips on how you can help transform your child into a confident, sociable person, that's not really how it works. For one, at this stage in their lives if they want to change their social skills it's something they have to do for themselves. At most you can offer the odd bit of support from the sidelines.
Secondly, when it comes to older teenagers you don't have a ton of ability to further influence their social development. They're almost adults. Soon they may be going off to college to live on their own. It's generally hard to get other people to change, even if you believe you know what's best for them. With younger kids it's a different story. You still have the authority to enroll them in a social skills training group or insist they see a counselor. A ten-year-old may not like it, but they still recognize their parents are allowed to make them go to things. If you try to do that with a 17-year-old they'll just push back at you.
Your son or daughter needs to decide for themselves when they'll work on their social issues. It can be tough to have to sit back like this, but you have to let things play out on their own time. Often kids in high school aren't in a headspace where they're ready to make changes. When they get a bit older many of them start to feel differently. Here are some reasons why your teen may not be up for tackling their awkwardness:
- Many awkward teenagers are still somewhat oblivious to the fact that they have social issues. They know on some level, but for the most part they're happy to, say, stay at home all the time and play video games.
- They may fully believe the messages their shyness and insecurities tell them, and not think there's any hope of improving. For example, they may say to themselves, "I'm just bad with people. You either have it or you don't" or "There's no way I can just talk to people and then maybe ask them to hang out. That's crazy." Even if someone explains to them their beliefs aren't accurate they still hold on them because they feel so true.
- So far in life their lack of social skills may not have cost them enough. For example, a young male who doesn't need a lot of friends, and who's content to spend his free time on the computer, isn't losing much by being awkward. In a few years he may realize he needs better people skills in order to get a girlfriend, and then be motivated to do something about it.
- They may recognize they have some social problems, but they're ashamed of them. They'd rather try to hide them and save face even if that means losing out in the present.
- They may not see themselves as awkward, just different. Down the road they may decide, "I still am a bit different from most people, and that's fine, but aside from that I do some legitimate social weaknesses I want to work on too." At the moment they don't think there's anything wrong.
- They may realize they have some things they need to work on, but don't feel they're a priority at the moment. Maybe they're happy to keep the status quo going for another year or two. Trying to change would be too much work.
Aside from all the internal reasons an awkward teenager may not want to change, they can be particularly unenthused about the idea of accepting help or criticism from their parents:
- Yeah, it's a stereotype, but a lot of teenagers have the attitude that their parents don't really know what they're talking about, especially when it comes to their social lives. They may think their mom and dad don't understand what they're going through, or don't know what it's like to socialize these days. Even if you tell them you went through the exact same thing at their age they may still think you're clueless. You may be thinking, "Come on, sure things are a bit different now because of texting and social media and shifting social norms and whatnot, but I know they haven't changed that much." Your kid doesn't have the life experience or perspective to see that though.
- In a more general sense kids can be reluctant to accept help from their parents. You may have had the experience of watching your child struggle to learn a new skill. When you tried to make a helpful suggestion they just got frustrated at you. However, when a coach or family friend later gave the exact same advice they cheerfully followed it.
- Children of any age don't like to think that they fail to measure up in their parent's eyes. Even if you have no problem with their awkwardness they may still feel like they're disappointing you and be reluctant to bring the topic into the open or accept your help.
- Even if you have a fairly warm relationship your son or daughter may still be resistant. Not all parents and kids have the coziest dynamic. For example, if they generally see you as the critical, authoritarian, impossible-to-please parent, they'll be even less likely to welcome your assistance.
I don't want to be too gloom and doom here. If your relationship is close they may be open to what you have to say. I just want to be realistic and lay out all the reasons that may not necessarily happen.
There's always the possibility even in a few years' time your child may still not be ready to change. They may never get to that point. That's why it's essential to...
Show that you accept your child just as they are
I'm guessing you knew this one was coming. As a parent one of the most important things you can do is to be loving and supportive. If your son or daughter is insecure and has a hard time in social situations, they have enough going on. It helps if they can at least feel that their parents are okay with how they are. Kids, even 17-year-olds, hate the feeling that their parents may think less of them. While you may recognize that your child has some social weaknesses, and believe their lives would be happier if they addressed them, everything in your actions should show that you accept them as they are, and that if they never changed, you'd still love them. You don't ever want to give the impression that your opinion of them is conditional on how socially successful they are.
A big reason you want to be accepting is that while your child may have some objective social weaknesses, in other ways they may be different from the norm in a way that's perfectly valid. Those differences may be tied up in their awkwardness, but you have to distinguish between true social deficits and normal variations in personality. For example, there's nothing wrong with having unique hobbies, being a bit reserved, preferring to spend time alone, or having an odd sense of humor. You don't want to come across like you're rejecting their core selves.
It can be tricky to pull off this advice. You likely won't get it perfect all the time. You can avoid obvious mistakes, such as openly criticizing, or lecturing them, or comparing them to a more outgoing sibling, but even more innocuous actions on your part may still trigger their insecurities. This is made more difficult by the fact that if someone is shy or insecure they can be extra sensitive to criticism, even if they're only imagining it. Also in the mix can be that general teenage tendency to think their parents don't get them.
For example, if you do something as simple as compliment a new shirt they've bought, they may interpret that as, "Oh, so they thought all my other shirts weren't good enough." If you make a comment like, "So what are your friends up to tonight?" They may hear it as, "I'm watching your every move and throwing it in your face that you have no plans this weekend." Like I said, you won't be able to win all the time, but if you can generally give off a vibe that you accept them for who they are it should all work out in the long run.
Get a handle on your own emotions and reactions
Knowing your teenager struggles in social situations can bring up a lot of emotions in you. I think it's important to be aware of them, so you can control them and not let them have a negative influence on how you act around your kid. Below are some ways you may feel. You'll notice that some of the points below aren't exactly 'acceptable' things to think, but they are reactions some parents have. You're not a monster if you catch some of it going through your head. You're allowed to feel what you feel. Of course you don't let on to your child that you're thinking that way:
- Feeling bad for your teenager, from seeing how hard of a time they're having. It's only natural that you want to make their pain go away.
- If you were awkward and shy yourself, having some of your own baggage come up. You may desperately want to help them avoid some of the mistakes you made.
- Feeling a bit annoyed at them for not realizing they have a problem, or not wanting to do anything about it. The situation seems so obvious to you, so why don't they see things the same way? For example, they may tell you how it's impossible for them to make friends. Their logic and explanations may not make sense to you, but they still seem to believe them.
- Feeling disappointed in your child for being so awkward. Maybe you were fairly popular in high school and can't really grasp how they seem to be having the opposite experience you did. Maybe you always hoped your son would be athletic, and you can't help but roll your eyes a bit when he spends a Saturday afternoon watching a bunch of anime with his friends.
- If you've already tried to help your child with their awkwardness, and they've shot you down, you may feel a bit slighted and resentful. Who do they think they are turning you away like that? You're still their parent.
- Having an urge to force your teenager to try to improve their social skills, even if it makes them unhappy. You feel the ends justify the means.
- Their awkwardness may be related to bigger issues in your relationship. For example, the two of you may not be as close as you used to be, and their shyness seems like just one more rift that's developing. Or as a father you may feel spurned when they feel less comfortable talking to you about the issue compared to their mother.
You can still broach the issue of helping them, just don't be shocked if they're not that interested
Even though I talk about the decision to change mostly being in the hands of your teenager, and how you have to accept them no matter what, if it's plain to see that they're shy and lonely it's not like you have to stay completely silent. What I'd suggest is bringing up the topic once. Odds are decent they won't be that open to accepting help. If they aren't don't take it personally. That's their choice to make. Don't keep bringing it up in an attempt to nag them into addressing their problem.
Pick a moment when you have time to speak and they're not in a distracted or frazzled mood. Tactfully mention that you may be totally misreading things, but you've noticed that they seem to having some trouble with (whatever their social issues seem to be), and that if there's anything you can do, you're there to help. If you were like them at their age, you can try letting them know. Again, they may deny there's a problem or generally want the conversation to be over. Even if they give that response, you can still lay out some options for them.
- You can point them to some resources. That may get the ball rolling on them wanting to make some changes for themselves. I'll plug myself here and say this site wouldn't be a bad bet for them to look at, seeing how young awkward people are its biggest audience.
- You can let them know that if they ever want to brainstorm some ideas or hear some suggestions, you may be able to help. As I've said seventy times already, they may not be too open to the idea of their parent giving them life advice, but if you have a close relationship they could be willing.
- Tell them that if they ever just want to vent to someone about some social issues they're having, you're happy to listen in a non-judgmental way and be their sounding board.
- If there's a family friend or relative they may be more open to talking to, you could mention their name. Maybe they'll be more amenable to chatting to their younger aunt or uncle who they look up to.
- You could mention that if they ever want to talk to a counselor, or look into a social skills training group, you'd be willing to help make that happen. If you bring this up be sure to emphasize that you're not making this suggestion because you think they're a really hard case, and that only the worst of the worst ever need to talk to a professional. Let them know that you don't view visiting a therapist as that big a deal, just as an option people have if they want some outside advice and support.
Funnily enough, if they are up for you helping them, the above list is also what you can do for them. Like I said, they have to do most of the work for themselves, but you can be in their corner to shore up their efforts.
If they're open to it, do what you can to help them attend counseling
If your son or daughter is open to seeing a counselor, and there's no law that says they have to be, this is an area where you can clearly be helpful. For one, your child likely won't be able to afford to see someone on their own. You can pay the bill, or you or your partner may have an Employee Assistance Plan at your job that covers the cost of therapy for you and family members. Your child also likely doesn't know how to research counselors in the area, find the right one, and set up an initial appointment. Finally, they may need as something as simple as a ride to and from their appointments.
If your son or daughter sees a counselor it's important to be patient and let things play out between them. A mistake some parents make is they expect a therapist to quickly and cost-effectively 'fix' their child for them.
There are times when you do have to be more forceful
Everything I've written above assumes your teenager is a bit awkward and insecure, but otherwise functioning okay. In those cases I don't think it's realistic to try to make them see a therapist or something equally as drastic. Of course there are situations where your child's social issues go beyond run-of-the-mill shyness, and you do need to step in, even if your kid isn't thrilled about it. Some examples:
- Your teen is so socially anxious that they start refusing to go to school, or skip a ton of classes.
- Your son or daughter seems genuinely depressed.
- Your teen's behaviors are causing them to get into conflicts at school.
If they do decide to start addressing their social issues, don't expect them to change overnight
It takes time for people to improve their social skills or start to feel less shy and insecure. If they do start working through their issues don't feel like they're dragging their feet or not working hard enough if they don't transform over a period of weeks. Also, give them space to change at their own pace. Maybe they'll be eager about it for a few months then get distracted by other things for a while. Especially don't make them feel monitored, or that your approval is somehow connected to their rate of progress. For example, if you go to a family function, they may feel self-conscious, and like you'll be watching them to see if their ability to mingle has gotten better. Again, you always want to be giving off that impression that you're fine with them the way they are. You'll be happy for them and share in their success if they make some changes, but if they don't you're okay with that too.