How can I help my child . . .
- recognize others’ emotions and develop empathy?
- be aware of their own impact on others?
- be open to and accepting of differences?
The main way teenagers explore and develop their own identity is through interactions and relationships with others, especially their peers. Their social circle expands rapidly as they form new connections and relationships with peers both in-person and virtually through social media.
At this time, they seek more independence from adults and start forming close bonds with friends. This is when teens discover characteristics and interests they share in common with others outside of their own family and learn what makes everyone different and unique. They are developing their sense of social awareness.
Social awareness is the ability to relate to others and understand where they are coming from. It involves the ability to:
- notice how others are feeling and respond appropriately
- feel empathy and compassion for others
- understand and respect others’ viewpoints and perspectives
- be open and accepting of others, including those from different backgrounds, cultures, and with different beliefs or values
Why It’s Important
While your teen is becoming more independent and preparing for adulthood, it’s important to remember that they still need your support to develop strong social skills. Schools, especially at the high school level, don’t always focus on these skills in the regular curriculum.
With cell phones and social media, it’s easier than ever for peers to make new connections. But online communication also adds challenges, as it’s easier to misunderstand or “read into” what others are saying or feeling.
In addition, when forming new social connections, teens tend to stay within their comfort zone and hang out with peers who are like them and share the same interests and values. However, encouraging them to develop friendships with peers from different backgrounds and across ethnic differences will help them become more adaptable, open, and less prejudiced into adulthood.
You can make a difference by focusing on social awareness at home.
Research suggests that young people with strong social awareness skills
- make friends and new social connections more easily.
- adapt more easily to new people and environments.
- have fewer interpersonal conflicts and solve problems effectively when they arise.
- have fewer behavior-related issues at school.
- are less prone to emotional distress.
- are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as substance misuse
Take this brief survey to identify your child’s strengths and areas for further development in the area of social awareness.
Character Traits / Skills
Shows interest in other people and their thoughts and opinions.
Notices how other people are feeling.
Shows care and empathy for others.
Has friends with different interests and from different backgrounds (racial, ethnic, religious, etc.).
Adapts to new people and environments without too much stress.
Shows interest in other people and their thoughts and opinions.
Adjusts their behavior as appropriate in different types of social settings and situations.
Listens to and respects other points of view.
Expresses disagreement without putting others down or hurting their feelings.
Review your answers to the survey. Were there any traits or skills you marked, “Somewhat describes my teen” or “Does not describe my teen”? If so, there’s no cause for worry. The great news is these skills can be taught, even to older kids and teens, and you can help! Read [this section] to learn how.
Connect & Communicate:
Parenting a teen can feel like a tightrope-walking act. It can be challenging to find the balance between showing interest in your child’s social life and seeming “nosy” or “overbearing.” They may not come to you with questions or problems as often or readily as when they were younger. It may take some extra effort, but taking the time to connect and communicate with your teen can help them develop critical skills they’ll use throughout their lives.
Here are some tips and ideas for connecting with your teen and helping them develop strong social awareness skills:
- Talk often. Whether at mealtimes, during car rides, or before bed, try to have frequent, meaningful conversations with your teen. Even a little bit of daily conversation will help communication feel normal and less like “having a talk” when there’s a problem. Try the “60:1” rule: Rather than one 60-minute talk, aim for 60 one-minute talks with your teen by taking the opportunity to check-in and chat with them several times throughout each day.
- Chat with your child specifically about friendships and their social life, including their online connections and communication. Open a discussion about what they think makes someone a good friend and the difference between respectful and disrespectful communication.
- Ask questions to help your teen develop an awareness of how others are feeling. Ask,
- “How do you think __________ felt when …?”
- “How would you feel if that happened to you?”
- Look for opportunities to model and cultivate empathy and compassion, for example,
- “Your sister seems upset. What do you think might help. . . ?“
- Give your children opportunities to express their opinions on a variety of topics and issues. Ask questions to help them see other perspectives.
- “What do you think about …?”
- “How do you feel about …?”
- Teach them to disagree respectfully, using phrases like,
- “I see your point but, . . .” and “I see it differently. . . ”
- Respect teens’ need for space and independence while letting them know you’re there for them when they need help. They are more likely to come to you for advice about a personal challenge if they see you as a good listener and a trusted resource rather than a judgemental enforcer.
- Make an effort to get to know their friends, including romantic partners. Be welcoming, but give them their space, too, so they feel comfortable around you.
- Encourage your teen to try new things and get involved in activities to help them expand their horizons and meet new people. Find out about opportunities to participate in sports, clubs, affinity groups, or volunteer groups, either through school, church, or local community organizations.
- Share news articles, books, or movies with your teen related to race, civil rights, equity, equality, and social justice.
Contact & Collaborate:
Your teen’s school along with local community organizations and other parents are great places to connect with for additional ways to support your teen’s social development:
- Find out how/whether your child’s school specifically addresses social skills and supports the development of students’ social awareness. Ask whether they offer any curriculum or programming specific to social-emotional learning, diversity awareness. These types of programs may be offered as extracurriculars or after-school programs and may be called “soft skills,” or “leadership skills.”
- Check out the extracurricular clubs and activities available at your child’s school.
- Learn what your local community has to offer in terms of youth organizations and community service opportunities. National non-profit organizations like Boys & Girls Club, Big Brothers & Big Sisters, and Girls on the Run, as well as local youth-serving nonprofits can be helpful resources.
- Join a local parent group on social media.
Explore these resources for more ideas on how to support your teen’s development of social awareness.
- Social Media and Teen Friendships
- Search Institute’s Keep Connected Parenting Site:
- Mighty Parenting Podcast
- Talking to Teens Podcast:
- Act for Youth Social Awareness and Empathy Resources
- Learning for Justice – Social Justice articles and activities
- Child Mind Institute Tips for teaching social skills at home