Adolescence is the stage of life where you are tasked with figuring out so much about yourself and the world around you. One of those things to understand is the rules of communication. For tweens and teens, these rules are often unspoken and confusing to interpret. COVID-19 and the digital age has made this even harder.
Jessica Lasser M.A. is a Speech Language Pathologist here at Evergreen Speech and Hearing Clinic. Jessica specializes in speech sound disorders, bilingual language and articulation therapy, aural rehabilitation, pragmatic language disorders, fluency and voice. In this blog post, she answered questions for us focused on how the digital age and COVID-19 have influenced functional and social communication skills in adolescents, as well as the ways parents and speech pathologists can help them strengthen those abilities.
Q: What is functional communication?
A: Functional communication is about using language to relate to peers and/or other adults in many different environments to support relationships. That could mean engaging in conversation, building a friendship, asking for something at a restaurant, etc. It is being able to use language for many different reasons and in different settings throughout the day.
Q: How has COVID-19 and the digital age affected social communication among tweens/teens?
A: During covid, everyone was isolated and not participating in face-to-face conversations. Instead, they were engaging with peers via video chats or just texting. There is a lot of communication that happens nonverbally with our bodies, with our positioning and our facial expressions that you lose when you are on a video chat looking just at a head in a box. Now that these kids are back into the world and engaging face-to-face, it’s hard to readjust and consider all of the social information that you are getting. I think getting used to interacting face-to-face after interacting on video chat or through texting for so long is a challenge for anybody, let alone someone with social communication challenges.
Q: What are some ways tweens/teens can work on improving their social communication?
A: The best way to work on social communication is by participating in activities, meeting new people and being in situations where you have to communicate with other people. A good place to start would be activities that they enjoy doing. Other options include finding clubs and summer camps to participate in.
Q: How can parents practice functional/social communication with their kids?
A: Practice having conversations. Practicing the back-and-forth flow of information. Provide opportunities for kids to have to communicate functionally. Examples could be going to the restaurant together as a family or going out and doing things as a family where everybody needs to participate.
When you are at home, giving them some support in an area of communication. For example, if a parent notices their child using social communication that’s maybe not as effective, then give cues like “Hey did you notice that this person looks bored? I think it was because we have been talking about trains for 15 minutes and maybe we should let them talk.” I step around this cautiously though, because I wouldn’t want parents prompting the child in front of their friends. That could be embarrassing. Having conversations at home is probably the best way to practice.
Another thing you can do together is observing how characters communicate in TV shows and movies. Pause the show/movie and ask them what they noticed about the communication or how a character reacted. Parents can also ask the child to notice how people are communicating in the show. Are they communicating effectively, or is there something they could be doing better. How are the other characters reacting? Do you think that was expected or unexpected for that situation? How would you respond? TV shows and movies can offer both positive and negative examples of communication that can be great discussion points for you and your teen.
Q: How can speech language pathologists help with functional/social communication?
A: Speech pathologists can help to break down communication into its different components to really understand and practice each part. Michelle Garcia Winner breaks conversations down into four steps in her Social Thinking curriculum. These four steps are:
- Think about the other person. Think about what you know about the other person, how do you know the person, what do you have in common, etc.
- Establish physical presence. This is the piece that might be tricky after coming back from video communication. Ask yourself how to approach a group of people. How close should you stand? If they are across the room, do they know that you are going to want to talk to them?
- Think with your eyes. You have to be looking at that person and interpreting what their body is doing. This step does not necessarily mean making eye contact with that person; it means analyzing their body position and their facial expressions to make an educated guess about what that person might be thinking or feeling.
- Use Verbal Communication to relate to the person. There is a lot within this last step that we can work on and talk about. For example, what do you say to start a conversation? What do you say to keep it going? What do you talk about? Do you ask questions? Do you make comments?
These four steps are a good framework to think about conversations, but there is a lot of work that can be done in each of those different steps to make a conversation successful. We can practice all these skills I just mentioned in a therapy session and a safe space. Usually, it is nice to have a patient start in an individual therapy session since we can tailor it to each patient. It is then important to get out into a social group setting and practice these skills with peers out in the community.