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, changing your parenting style to be less sheltering, 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 struggles socially, or because you didn't step in earlier

Parents want the best for their kids. They can 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. It was going to happen even if you were a great, supportive parent.

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 teenager'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're likely to 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:

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:

I don't want to be too gloom and doom here. If your relationship is close they may very well 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 their social success.

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 that will help them in the long run.

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Get a handle on your own emotions and reactions

Knowing your teenager struggles in social situations can bring up a lot of emotions. It's important to be aware of them, so you can manage 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:

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 or twice. 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 be 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.

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, it's the rare teenager who's able to afford to see someone on their own. You can pay for the sessions, or you or your partner may have an Employee Assistance Plan at your job that covers the cost of therapy for you and your 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 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.

Check out this article:

How To Find A Therapist To Help Your Teenager With Their Social Skills Or Social Anxiety

There are times when you 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:

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 putting in enough effort if they don't transform in three 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.

Giving them the odd supportive compliment may boost their self-confidence or motivation a little, but make sure it's sincere

Being encouraging won't single-handedly solve their problems, but it can help a bit here and there. Don't say anything unless you mean it. Your kid will know if you're blowing smoke up their butt to try to falsely pump them up or get them to change quicker. Also, accept they may dismiss what you say because they believe something like, "Of course my mom thinks I'm interesting. She's my parent. She's supposed to see the good in me. She doesn't get that just because I can have a conversation with her it doesn't change the fact that no one my own age likes me."

It can help to talk to a counselor yourself

If you're feeling worried, upset, or conflicted about your son or daughter's social struggles, it may be a relief to have an impartial third party you can go to to talk to about those feelings.

Again, you may want to check out this related article:

How To Find A Therapist To Help Your Teenager With Their Social Skills Or Social Anxiety