How do I help my teenager with social anxiety learn how to have conversations with his peers?
Parents raising teenagers beset by social anxiety know all too well the social and emotional costs of this condition. Self-esteem is negatively impacted as social development is thwarted by avoidance and discomfort. Conversations with peers are especially arousing of anxiety due to heightened self-consciousness and fears of exposure. As parents witness their teen’s verbal paralysis in the face of these conflicts, many grow frustrated and confused about how to help.
If this situation rings true for you, read on for ways to coach confident communication skills in your child.
In order for a teen to accept a parent’s social coaching, several conditions must be met. Among them are that the parent must acknowledge that their teen perceives socialization as a minefield, the teen must experience the parent’s assistance as helpful and not intrusive and the dialogue must proceed in a manner that is as comfortable as possible for the teen. Once these conditions of safety are met, parents can begin to offer practical strategies to boost confidence and competence. Be prepared that your teen may strongly resist at first, even if the parent is hitting all the right notes. But your child will likely come around if parents show patience and a willingness to await their readiness.
Parents should start with modest goals so that their teen experiences expectations as realistic. Contributing a few comments during a lunch table group discussion at school or approaching a friend to confirm a homework assignment are two examples to offer. Your teen can tell you where these social steps fall on the ladder of increasing social difficulty. Ask for their help in designating steps from one to 10 with similar real life social steps. Reassure them that even if they sometimes complete higher steps, you understand that they need much practice to overcome the usual anxiety that comes with each step. Keep in mind that their social comfort and communication confidence is supported by your patience, not pressure.
Emphasize the importance of strategic preparation and planning when taking these social steps. The acronym QAC, standing for question-answer-comment, is a simple guideline for them to refer to during conversations. “Setting the conversation table” is a visual template for them to build before entering a social encounter so they can easily refer to prepared talking points. Filling the “common ground container” is when your teen prepares in their mind the areas of overlap they share with someone else so that they can feel more comfortable participating in a conversation. “Conversation steering” is when your teen asks questions or offers comments that guide conversation toward these common ground topics.
Privately review with your teen their experiences taking steps on the social ladder. Ask them to share their view of how they did and what they thought was in the mind(s) of those they were interacting with. If you were present, give them constructive feedback about your observations, and correct any misinterpretations or confusion. Gently suggest ways they could have elaborated upon a topic, asked related questions or shown more enthusiasm. Balance these strategies with praise for their efforts.
Dr. Steven Richfield is a child and adolescent psychologist in Plymouth Meeting. Contact him at 610-238-4450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.