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Adolescence and Learning to Speak Up

Teenagers who are inclined to be silent can benefit by becoming more outspoken

In one form or another, I keep coming back to the importance of young people learning to effectively speak up. I do so because having or lacking this capacity seems to make such a profound social and psychological difference in whether they feel enabled or disabled making their way in an older world during the last stage of adolescence, Trial Independence (ages 18 – 23.)

The ability to verbally declare and define oneself is a fundamental life skill. They must depend upon it to communicate their ideas and feelings and needs and wants, form intimate relationships, transact personal business, and negotiate their way in an adult world.

More specifically, speaking up enables young people to present themselves, declare themselves, explain themselves, make themselves socially known, ask for what they need to know, question authority, sell themselves, persuade others, defend themselves with words, argue on their own behalf, take important stands, and talk out feelings rather than act them out. Speaking up can serve many purposes.

However, speaking up can be complicated to do. It is partly a language challenge (WHAT exactly to say), partly an objective challenge (WHY one is choosing to speak), and partly a social challenge (WHO is being spoken to). This combination can make what sounds like a simple task actually very difficult when feeling at a loss for words, fearing to disagree, or having to confront an authority. For example, the college freshman believes her paper was unfairly graded, but does she approach the professor for a re-evaluation? If she doesn’t, no one else will. She is the only advocate she has, but assuming this grown up responsibility can be tough for an unpracticed older adolescent to do.

Adapting the words she used to describe her dilemma, they went like this: “I have to act like an adult speaking up to an adult when I don’t feel like an adult!” She was correct. Speaking up to adults contributes to fluency of communication with adults and confers a sense of adult standing.

I wish high school and college teachers would routinely let students know the importance of speaking up. They could begin each course by taking five minutes to talk about how speaking up in class contributes to strengthening a vital social skill that can be as important as learning the specific content under study. They can encourage students to speak up in front of peers and to an adult in authority, to answer, to question, to join the dialogue, and to disagree. They can even make a promise: “If you can get more comfortable publically speaking up in this class in front of your peers and to me, you will do yourself an expressive favor. You will strengthen your capacity to be outspoken for later on.”

The opposite of speaking up is shutting up, remaining undeclared and undefined and unknown—a habit that can be a real social liability when one can’t express, or explain, or question, or debate, or assert oneself for self-advancement or self-defense. This is why parents want to be sure their adolescent has adequate speaking up skills in place before leaving home around high school graduation age. Young people prone to shutting up can have a harder time doing something as fundamental as looking for a job, making employment contact, expressing interest, describing qualifications, and comfortably interviewing well.

Of course, some young people seem to be verbally expressive and socially outgoing from the start. For example, inclined to identify and communicate with parents on an adult basis, and encouraged to be both verbally and socially precocious (“adultized” in this way), many an only child develop strong speaking up skills as part of assuming grown up family standing from an early age. Some young people grow up in push-and-shove social circumstances where aggressive verbal skills are required to hold one’s own. To survive they learn to be outspoken from an early age. Then there are those children who grow up in a family or social culture of free-for-all discussion that produces young people who are well practiced in speaking up since speaking their mind has always been encouraged and expected, even demanded. There are lots of social and family backgrounds that favor learning to speak up.

Having said this, there are still many children and adolescents who grow up in a "shutting up" way. Maybe they tend to be inward or shy, or feel socially insecure, or are easily embarrassed, or fear sounding foolish, or simply find finding words to speak hard to do. Or perhaps speaking up is treated as talking back in a family where children should be seen but not heard. Or perhaps dominant older siblings discourage speaking out by younger siblings. Whatever the cause, it is about these adolescents that I was thinking when writing this blog, pondering ways I’ve seen inexperienced young people practice speaking up that parents were able to encourage and help.

Consider, in no particular order, a few common “training” experiences from which I have seen uncommunicative adolescents benefit as they learn to become more comfortably and confidently outspoken on their own behalf.

Family meal times are used for discussion times. Bed-time talks encourage recapping events of the day. Adolescents are expected to converse with parental friends. Parents encourage questions about themselves. Arguing with parents is welcomed. Giving class reports is required. Parents coach adolescents in how to talk with school personnel when problems arise. Students participate in speech and debate and drama classes. Students run for elective office at school. Parents expect adolescents to convincingly state their case to get more personal freedoms. For a job, young people undergo sales training. Adolescents are made responsible for making adult contacts and arrangements when worldly needs arise. To finance a school or church youth project, participating in fund raising is expected.

All of these experiences are just a few scattered opportunities for an adolescent to improve her or his capacity for speaking up. The point is this: if parents have a shutting up adolescent, they can be instrumental in supporting activities that encourage expressive practice.

Finally, although I am not a psychological researcher, just a practitioner-observer, my “research bet” would be that if you had two groups of adolescents, one where subjects characterized themselves as more Socially Outspoken and the other where subjects characterized themselves as more Socially Unspoken, I believe you might find this difference.

On some established test of global self-esteem, the more outspoken adolescents would tend to score significantly higher than their more reticent peers. Why? By practicing assertive communication, speaking-up adolescents may affirm their sense of personal value: “I have something worth saying, I am worth listening to, I am worth being known, and I intend to be heard.”

Speaking up not only can empower young people as they make their way in the adult world, but it can also build a young person’s self-confidence and self-esteem. On all counts, parents might want to nurture this essential life skill as their adolescent grows.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and the Positional Power of Parents

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