At a glance
Teens who learn and think differently often need to brush up on social habits and cues.
Parents and caregivers can help by role-playing common social situations.
The more the social prep, the easier your teen will be able to navigate real-life scenarios.
Ask any group of teens and they'll likely tell you that embarrassment of any kind is a fate worse than death. For teens who learn and think differently, though, handling everyday social situations can mean working even harder to follow basic social rules and much more time spent feeling anxious.
Here's where you can help. By role-playing daily interactions your teen will likely be involved in, you'll brush up on important social skills. Your teen will feel more prepared for day-to-day scenarios—and keep awkwardness at bay.
Asking Someone on a Date
The time will come when your teen wants to ask someone for a date. This can feel intimidating and be anxiety-provoking, especially if your teen is unsure of how to even start the conversation.
Practice ways to ask for different types of dates—whether it’s going with a group for pizza afterschool or going out as a couple to the movies. Try switching roles, and include scenarios where your teen gets turned down. In general, having open conversations about dating can make teens more comfortable about coming to their parents for help and support.
Going on a Job Interview
First job interviews are a whole new territory for most teens. If your high-schooler has trouble communicating and struggles with social skills, it can be even harder to know what to say or do when it's time to go out for a job. Remind your high-schooler that a rehearsal with you will help build up confidence.
First, ask your teen some typical interview questions like “What are your strengths?” and “Why do you want the job?” Have your teen listen to each one, decide if it requires a short or more extensive answer and then practice responding. Brainstorm questions your teen can ask potential employers.
Being Offered Alcohol or Drugs
High-schoolers often face intense peer pressure to drink alcohol or do drugs. And those who have poor impulse control, weak social skills or low self-esteem may have even more trouble saying “no.” Give your teen some simple lines to use when they casually decline such temptations, like, “Not right now,” “I really don’t like the taste,” or “I’m not drinking.”
It's also important for parents and caregivers to constantly remind teens that they can call anytime, whether it's for a safe ride or an easy out from a situation that's making them uncomfortable or where they feel in danger.
Joining a School Club
Joining a club is a great way for teens to explore new interests. But it can be stressful, especially for kids who have trouble reading social cues or working in groups. Breaking the situation down into parts will make it easier.
For example, try starting a family game of charades or cards that your teen has to “join.” Then, practice introductions, asking questions and picking up on social cues. Your teen can also work on being patient when others are talking and picking the right moment to enter the conversation.
Chatting at a Party
Making small talk at a party is difficult and awkward for many adults, let alone teens. Having a script can make it easier. Help your teen prep for a chat with some conversation starters to practice on you. Examples include: complimenting your outfit, commenting on the decorations or saying something positive about the host or food.
Make a list of current topics that peers would be interested in (video games, new movies, homework the teacher just assigned...). Next, brainstorm appropriate questions your high-schooler can ask the other guests, then role-play different responses. Here, you're helping your teen recognize social cues that mean it's time to change the approach or move on to a different topic of conversation.
Working on a Group Project
Group projects can be fun, but they can also be tricky for a teen who learns and thinks differently. First of all, it's likely that the teacher, not your high-schooler, will end up picking the group. Your teen might not know anyone or the other kids could be part of a clique.
Act out scenarios including ones where your teen doesn’t readily agree with the whole group. Let your teen practice saying things like, “Let’s try doing this two different ways and then vote which is better” or “We should figure out who’d be best for each task.” In this way, your high-schooler feels they can fit in and offer forth their best talents.
Greeting Adults at a Gathering
You probably taught your child to politely greet adults from a young age. But if your teen struggles socially, it's time to practice some more. Explain that as a young adult it’s not always enough to shake hands and say, “Good to meet you.”
Practice other adult introductions. Start with the basics: “Hi, my name is Michael. I’m Mary’s son.” Then have your teen expand: “Who are you related to at this party?” "Do you live nearby?" It's good to practice ending the conversations or saying goodbye too. Try: "Thank you for having me." "I hope to see you then next time."
Role-playing common teen experiences, like asking someone on a date, is really helpful for teens who struggle socially.
Act out various social scenarios and how they might go, both good and bad.
Your teen might not always know what to say, but learning social cues can help.
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About the author
About the author
Melissa A. Kay is a writer, editor, and content strategist in the areas of family, health, employment, beauty, lifestyle, and more.
Jim Rein, MA has lectured on postsecondary options and summer programs for kids and young adults with learning and thinking differences.