Have you ever been forced to go to a gathering, work function, or party where you didn’t know many people? For many people, this is a very uncomfortable situation. They may feel worried about making a good impression, or concerned that people may not like them. They may worry about making small talk or finding something to say. These types of worries are very common.
For many teens, particularly those in bigger junior high schools or high schools, this may feel like a typical day. The average graduating class in high school in the United States is 706 students, which means the average high school is about 3000 students. If you are a teen who is shy or introverted, the large class sizes may seem very large and overwhelming at times.
New longitudinal research, published by the University of Michigan, based on students from 1991-2012, found that students have smaller groups of peers than they did a generation ago. However, the data also suggests that due to increased contact through electronics and on-line exchanges, relationships tend to be closer than they were 20 years ago. Other research has also found that as teens rely more on electronics, they tend to become less interested and less skilled at direct, face-to-face social interactions.
We don’t know the future implications of fewer in-person social exchanges. However, it seems logical that it may be hard for some teens to find a way to break into new social networks, particularly if they are not connected through electronics or social media. They may feel that many of the existing social networks are closed to new people, or they are connected, they may feel rejected if their peers do not “like” their posts or shares on social media platforms. As parents or people who work with teens, we may feel at a loss for how to help.
Here are some suggestions for helping a shy teen make friends
Go back to the basics
Teens and tweens may need more direct coaching on how to get to know someone in person. Parents may need to teach (and model) their teens how to make small talk. For example adults could ask (and work on) some of the following steps with their teen:
- Pick a person with whom you share interests or activities, and someone who you believe to be nice or kind.
- Before you start talking, look at the person as a detective would. Think about what they are wearing, holding in their hands, or any pins/logos/etc. on their possessions? What is unique about this person?
- Think… Do you know this person from any other context? Do you share any friends? Are they in a club or activity, or class with you?
- Given what you see or remember, what might THEY be interested in talking about? Try to think about them, and get them engaged in something THEY will be interested in.
- What questions could you engage in to make some small talk? Small talk is important. It helps us warm up to larger conversations later. It helps people know that you are interested in getting to know them, and that you care about what they think.
- The next time you see the person, say hello. If you pass them in the hall, or in class, say their name and greet them. Basic, but effective.
Help your teen decide how to get together with peers
Could they meet for lunch in the cafeteria or the library before school? Could they go to a sporting event, musical event, or school play together? Offer to drive them if needed. If you are comfortable, encourage your teen to invite them over to your home for brief, structured activities. Start with shorter activities and work up to longer or less structured activities.
Gradually, talk to your teen about social media
Assess his comfort level with these types of networks or other electronic devices. Familiarize yourself with the types of social media your teen is using and communicate with him regularly about its use.
As your teen gains for confidence in himself, and more comfort with his friends, the next steps will likely get easier and progress more naturally. Check in with your teen. Ask how things are going. Role-play difficult situations back and forth if your teen is interested. Remember that it can take time and persistence, but the effort is worth it.