Teens and Socializing: Relationships, Coping Skills, and Substance Use

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How to Help Teens Build Social Connections

Most of us have a few cringe-worthy memories from our awkward teenage years. Adolescence is often a time when socializing is particularly challenging. That’s partly because peer relationships are so important for teens.

Moreover, teenagers are still discovering who they are and how they want to be in the world. Therefore, every interaction feels significant. That puts a lot of pressure on teens!

However, in recent years, new factors have been impacting the development of teenage social skills. For one, technology now plays a prominent role in teen relationships. Additionally, more and more kids are being diagnosed with social anxiety and autism spectrum disorder.

Overall, when it comes to socializing, teen coping skills are becoming increasingly necessary to help adolescents create healthy social lives and optimum mental health.

How Technology Impacts Teen Social Skills

The proliferation of social media and cellphone use means that teens engage in less face-to-face socializing. Thus, real-time communication can feel daunting and scary.

An awkward teen may feel more comfortable relating to peers from the safety of their bedroom, via texts and Facebook comments rather than actual conversation. In fact, a study by the Pew Research Center found that only 25 percent of teens spend time with friends in person (outside of school) on a daily basis.

Additionally, the study found that video games play a crucial role in the formation and development of teenage relationships. This is true for boys in particular. While 16 percent of male teen gamers play in person with friends, more than twice that number play with friends online.

In a 2017 review study done at the University of California, Irvine, researchers concluded that “digital interactions offer increased benefits in some areas while posing additional risks in others.” Those “additional risks” include the increased potential for cyberbullying and spreading rumors.

Moreover, online interactions limit teens’ ability to practice real-life social skills. Not surprisingly, researchers have found that adolescents with social anxiety find it easier to communicate online than in person.

“For those who may be shy and feel inhibitions about talking with others in person, various technologies provide a safe opportunity for them to interact with others. However, these technologies may also be replacing or be a substitution for face-to-face interaction.”

—from the study “Social anxiety and technology: face-to-face communication versus technological communication among teens,” by Tamyra Pierce

Furthermore, consistent online communication among teens increases the risk of social media addiction. This is worth noting, as research shows that teenagers’ use of social media goes hand in hand with increased teen depression.

Read “Looking for ‘Likes’: Teens and Social Media Addiction.” 

Newport Academy Empowering Teens Resources Coping Skills Socializing Substance Use Mental Health

The Increasing Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Another factor impacting teenage communication is the increasing number of teens being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines ASD as a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. This diagnosis includes several conditions that were previously diagnosed separately: autism, Asperger syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified.

According to the CDC, more people than ever before are being diagnosed with ASD. A CDC report shows that the prevalence of ASD diagnosis increased dramatically between 2000 and 2012. In the year 2000, one in every 150 children was diagnosed with ASD. However, 12 years later, one in every 68 children was being diagnosed with the disorder.

The CDC maintains that the increase in ASD diagnoses is probably due to several contributing factors. These factors include the broader definition of ASD and mental health professionals’ improved ability to diagnose it. However, the CDC states that a true increase in the number of people with ASD cannot be ruled out.

ASD and Teen Socializing

Teens with ASD typically have impaired social skills and language abilities, according to the Center for Autism Research. Specifically, they find it hard to read others’ facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Unfortunately, these are skills that are essential for teen communication.

Therefore, teens with ASD find it difficult to make friends. Thus, coping strategies for teens with ASD are particularly important.

Social skills activities for teenagers with ASD can be helpful. Teens can spend time with other kids who share their challenges. Together with trained experts, they can work toward creating a coping strategies list. Such a list can help them navigate the minefield of teenage communication.

Teens and Social Anxiety

Some 15 million Americans suffer from social anxiety. Furthermore, people with social anxiety typically begin experiencing symptoms in adolescence.

Teenagers with social anxiety feel intense fear of being judged or rejected in social situations. Thus, they may refuse to attend social events or spend time with groups of peers. Parents should realize that a child with social anxiety is not just being a stubborn teenager.

Moreover, social anxiety, also called social phobia, is more extreme than simply being shy. A study by the National Institute of Mental Health surveyed youth (ages 13 to 18) who identified themselves as shy. They found that only 12 percent of the participants met the criteria for social phobia. Hence, researchers concluded that social phobia is an impairing psychiatric disorder that goes beyond normal shyness.

In addition, substance abuse, particularly alcohol abuse, is common among people who have social anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. They use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate the pain and discomfort of social anxiety. Furthermore, they mistakenly believe that using drugs or alcohol will help ease their social phobia. Therefore, healthy anxiety coping skills for teens are incredibly important.

Socializing, Social Challenges, and Teen Substance Abuse

Teens with social anxiety are not the only ones at increased risk for substance abuse. Many types of teenage social challenges are associated with drug and alcohol use. In fact, a review study published in the journal Psychopharmacology concluded that antisocial personality traits in adolescents are a prominent risk factor for substance abuse.

Moreover, a study using laboratory rats showed that social isolation among adolescents leads to quicker drug addiction. The rats in the study were isolated from their peers during the adolescent period of their development.

Subsequently, they became much more likely than non-isolated rats to show a preference for amphetamine and alcohol. In addition, it took longer for them to break the addiction when they were no longer exposed to the drugs and alcohol.

The researchers concluded that similar changes in the brain might occur with socially isolated adolescents. Therefore, such teens would be at increased risk for substance use disorder.

Newport Academy Empowering Teens Resources Coping Skills Socializing Substance Use Tips

Coping Strategies for Teens

Teens with positive social connections are not only happier, but also physically healthier. Socially active teens are healthier in key areas, such as weight, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels.

Thus, teaching coping skills to teenagers with social challenges is essential. Moreover, coping skills activities for kids can also help prevent teen substance use, teen depression, and other mental health disorders.

Here are six ways to foster positive coping skills for teen socializing that help kids navigate their social world.

1. Offer approval and acceptance.

It’s critical for parents to show their kids how much they appreciate and accept them. This is true for all children, but it can be especially helpful for socially awkward or insecure teens. Teenagers who don’t feel accepted by their peers need to know that they are lovable and worthy of approval.

2. Practice communication skills.

Positive parent-teen communication helps adolescents gain skills in having conversations, asking questions, and being a good listener. Hence, parents show by example how to interact with others and be a good friend. However, it may not be easy to start these conversations with a teen, so parents need to find ways to engage their child.

Read “How to Talk to Teens.”

3. Avoid labeling.

Sometimes teens are labeled as “shy” or “a loner” based on their behavior when they were younger. Consequently, they begin to think of themselves that way. Unfortunately, this can create a negative self-image. It’s wise to avoid labeling a teen’s social style. Moreover, teens are constantly evolving as they mature, so what was true in the past may not be true a year—or a month—later.

4. Provide opportunities to build social skills.

There are many different activities and groups that give adolescents the chance to develop their social skills. Sports, theater, camps, art classes, and volunteering all help build coping skills for teens. Parents can help their kids figure out what activities appeal to them and encourage their participation—without forcing or pushing them.

5. Cultivate positive emotions.

There are many different coping skills for teenage depression. Moreover, these skills can also assist in socializing. In other words, when we feel more positive and happy, we are better able to reach out to others. Hence, teens can learn to cultivate positive emotions, such as gratitude and love. Moreover, they can develop positive routines and behaviors that help them stay centered and enhance their well-being.

Read “The Power of Positivity for Teen Mental Health.”

6. Reach out for help.

Finally, if you think your teen might be suffering from social anxiety, reach out for expert assessment and guidance. As stated above, social anxiety is not stubbornness or even shyness. It is a diagnosable form of anxiety disorder. Thus, there are documented treatment approaches to help teens address social phobias and develop healthy, authentic connections.

Sources

Pew Research Center

Dev Psychol. 2007 Mar;43(2):267-77.

Yau, J.C. & Reich, S.M. Adolescent Res Rev (2017).

Psychiatr Danub. 2012 Mar;24(1):90-3.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Center for Autism Research

Pediatrics. 2011 Nov;128(5):917-25. 

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

Neuron. 2013 Jan 23;77(2):335-45. 

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Jan 19;113(3):578-83.