Why So Many Kids Struggle to Connect with Others—and How Parents Can Help Practice This Crucial Skill

Like many skills, the ability to meaningfully and productively communicate takes practice. Maribeth Kuzmeski tells parents how they can organically teach their kids to connect with others—so that when they do become teens they can do more than shrug, grunt, and send another text.

Teens and technology. These days they’re as inseparable as toddlers and their teddy bears. When your teens (and, increasingly, tweens) aren’t updating their Facebook pages they’re probably texting friends or blaring music through mp3 players. And here’s the irony: Today’s young people are more “connected” than any other generation in history, but they have a general inability to, well, connect. In fact, says Maribeth Kuzmeski, many can barely carry on the most basic conversations and have trouble articulating what they want or need.

“I’m not saying the digital world is the reason why young people struggle to function in the real one,” says Kuzmeski, author of the new book The Engaging Child: Raising Children to Speak, Write, and Have Relationship Skills Beyond Technology. “At least it’s not the only one. It’s more like a crutch. Because technology is so pervasive, teens use it as a substitute for real conversations. And so they don’t hone those critical skills.

“The ability to engage and collaborate with others in a meaningful way is critical in a global society,” she adds. “So when young people don’t learn how, they really do hurt their chances for a successful life.”

Learning to engage and connect, of course, begins long before the teen years. Kids learn by doing. And just as we must push kids to clean their rooms and do their homework, it’s up to us as parents to force them to interact with others in persuasive, polite, and engaging ways.

Technology is only part of the problem, Kuzmeski points out. The other part is that we tend to do things for our kids that we need to be teaching them to do for themselves. We set up their dental appointments, for example. We place their orders in restaurants. We talk to their teachers. We call in sick for them when they need to miss a day of school. We do these things because we’ve always done them—and in the process we squander what could be rich learning opportunities.

“The truth is, parents just don’t think about turning these tasks over to their kids. It’s never occurred to them. But when they step back and let kids manage these kinds of everyday situations—and provide plenty of coaching along the way—they’re surprised by how quickly they begin to blossom.”

Giving parents the tools they’ll need to help their children develop a strong ability to connect with others is the focus of Kuzmeski’s latest book. As a bonus, the author’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Lizzie, wrote the last two chapters. They are meant to be read by Lizzie’s fellow teens and tweens in order to provide a peer’s perspective on the elements of building and maintaining real relationships in a wired and fast-paced world.

Read on to learn about six strategies that you can incorporate into your family’s life, as well as the skills they’ll help your kids develop naturally and organically:

Have them place a restaurant order. If you’re like many parents you’re eager to hurry things along in restaurants so you get in the habit of ordering for the whole family. The next time you’re dining out, though, use it as an opportunity for your child to interact with the server in a way that gets results. Instruct him to order his own meal, complete with requests to hold the pickles or bring extra ketchup or ranch for the fries. You can also prompt your child to thank the waitress when his meal is delivered and encourage him to engage with her in positive ways when she checks in throughout the meal.

Help them return an item to a store, especially at a busy time. At some point, your child is going to receive a birthday gift she already owns, a sweater from Aunt Grace that might have fit her two years ago, or a toy that’s damaged or missing a part. When you make the trip to the customer service desk, be sure to bring your daughter along. Ask her to explain why she is returning the item and to specify whether she’d like an exchange, cash, or store credit. And (as always) remind her to use “please” and “thank you.”

“Dealing with long lines, hassled employees, and confusing return policies can be a challenge even for adults!” Kuzmeski admits. “Having your child take the lead might take a bit more time, but it’ll be an invaluable lesson to her in negotiating using what she knows (the store’s return policy) for the outcome she wants (like a sweater that fits). Especially if the customer service rep is frazzled or if your child is in the wrong (for example, she lost the receipt), she’ll be able to see firsthand that politeness and understanding can—sometimes—smooth things over. Also, seeing positive results will teach her that it’s worth the effort to correct a problem rather than just ‘letting it go’ and absorbing the financial loss.”

Ask them to set up an appointment. Whenever he needs to visit the doctor, dentist, or hairstylist (or even when your dog needs to go to the vet!), ask him to call and book the appointment. Instruct him to be as detailed as possible when requesting a visit time, and help him to look at the calendar before confirming to make sure there’s not a conflict.

“Making his own appointments will help your child fine-tune his phone etiquette and ability to pay attention to details,” Kuzmeski points out. “He’ll also learn to make decisions and navigate his own schedule while working with someone else’s. As he gets older, you can begin to let him request specific services, relay insurance information, and more. Lastly, if you need to cancel an appointment for any reason, allow your child to make the call and reschedule. The lessons he learns about time management and dealing with uncomfortable conversations will be invaluable well into adulthood.”

Help them to decline invitations. Between friends’ birthday parties, cousins’ graduation celebrations, classmates’ bar mitzvahs, and more, your child is going to be invited to events that she is unable to attend. Once she has looked at the calendar and seen that she’s already busy (or in a more extreme instance, you’ve looked at plane tickets and decided they’re too expensive), go over polite refusals with her so that she knows what to say. Then ask her to call the event’s host and explain why she can’t attend.

Equip them to converse with a stranger. Most youngsters are very comfortable “LOLing,” “BRBing,” and “TTYLing.” But when it’s time to have a good old-fashioned verbal conversation, especially with someone they don’t know well, many kids tend to clam up. Whether your child is a chatterbox at home or not, opening up to strangers (in your presence, of course!) can be quite intimidating. The next time your family is in a larger-scale social setting (like a holiday party, family reunion, or worship service), give him a few ideas of how he can strike up a discussion with people he doesn’t see every day.

“Even before the days of smartphones and Facebook, it was completely normal for youngsters to feel reluctant to approach older adults.You’ll be doing your kids a big favor if you arm them with icebreakers that they can use to proactively connect. Before social events, discuss what some good topics of discussion might be and help them to make a list of strategies for drumming up conversation. They’ll also be able to power through any awkward lulls in conversation that might otherwise discourage them from taking the connecting initiative in the future. And they might also find a new friend or mentor!” 

Make them do their own fundraising. At some point between kindergarten and high school graduation, most children will be asked to participate in fundraising. Whether she is selling cookies for her Girl Scout troop, magazine subscriptions to raise money for a band trip, or coupon books for her school, require that your child do all of the selling herself. Instead of taking her catalogue and order forms to work, let her come to the office—if only for thirty minutes during lunch—and make her pitch in person. You can also prompt her to approach people she knows at church and in your neighborhood, and to phone friends and relatives.

By the way, if your child is already a teen, don’t worry that he or she is a lost cause. While many of Kuzmeski’s tips are aimed at younger children, others are appropriate for teens as well—or easily adapted for them.

“Teens can take the lead in planning and hosting their own parties,” says Kuzmeski. “They can pet sit and baby-sit for friends and neighbors. You can even conduct mock interviews with them to prepare for future jobs, and suggest that they work part-time in the summer if they’re old enough. All of these activities—and many more—will accustom them to interacting and collaborating effectively.

“Regardless of your child’s age, making these connections might not be easy at first. Depending on your kids’ ages and personalities, they may balk at being asked to get into the proverbial driver’s seat (and in fact, that might be one reason you’ve always spoken for them!). But be insistent and consistent. Your children’s comfort levels will increase, and especially as they begin to experience positive connecting outcomes, they’ll become more and more proactive.”

About the Authors:

Maribeth Kuzmeski, MBA, CSP, is the author of six books including …And the Clients Went Wild! and The Connectors (Wiley), and is a frequent national media contributor and international speaker. Maribeth and her firm, Red Zone Marketing, Inc., consult and train businesses from financial services firms to Fortune 500 corporations on strategic marketing planning and business growth. She has personally consulted with some of the world’s most successful CEOs, entrepreneurs, and professionals. Maribeth lives in the Chicago, IL, area with her husband and two teenagers.

Lizzie Kuzmeski is a teenager and a natural connector. She enjoys theatre, horseback riding, and, yes, Facebook.