Ep 52: Get Your Teen to Think

Dr. Jennifer Salerno shares communication tactics that you can put into practice today to start reshaping your relationship with your teen. As founder of the non-profit Possibilities for Change, Jennifer knows a thing or two about impacting the lives of teens!

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Full show notes

At some point as a parent, you’ve gone into your child’s room and stumbled across something that left you shocked. You never know when you’re going to have conversations about risky behaviors with your child, you just don’t want it to be too late. But it can be hard to get through to your teen, especially when they’re fighting tooth and nail to gain their independence. Luckily, there are ways to reconnect with an aloof teen!

With some easy-to-follow tips for improving parent-teen relationships, you can make a lasting positive impact on your child’s decision making, even when you’re not around. That’s the topic of today’s episode, “Get Your Teen to Think.”

I spoke with Dr. Jennifer Salerno to gather some tips for improving parent-teen relationships in her book, Teen Speak: A Guide to Understanding and Communicating with Teens. Her organization, Possibilities for Change, trains medical professionals on how to speak effectively with their teenage patients. After working intimately with adolescents and colleagues to refine the program, her research has resulted in the RAAPS risk screening system, which has tips for improving parent-teen relationships and is used by medical professions all over the country to mitigate risky behaviors among teens.

RAAPS operates primarily through two core elements:
  1. Understanding
  2. Reflection
Dr. Salerno’s method of communication pairs medical research with these two easy-to-use concepts, which is why RAAPS is so applicable to teens at home. Here’s how her tips for improving parent-teen relationships work:


The first step is strengthening your understanding of one another. Understanding is more than just acknowledging what your teen is saying when they come to you with a problem. It’s when you comprehend the deeper meaning of their experiences and why they feel the way they do. According to Dr. Salerno, practicing and demonstrating understanding is how you can initiate these tips for improving parent-teen relationships.

Let’s say your teen is harboring a negative attitude. You ask them what’s wrong, and they respond with, “I hate being short!” Initially, your parental instincts might tell you to help them maintain a positive attitude or encourage them to forget about trivial problems. But blatant positive reinforcement and avoiding negativity don’t really address what is causing their unhappiness. To implement the first of many tips for improving parent-teen relationships, you’ll need to investigate why this is a problem, why it’s important to them, and what it says about the bigger picture of what your teen is going through.

You can practice understanding your teen by stating that whatever is troubling them is in fact a worthwhile problem. Then, consciously take the time to step out of your perspective on the matter and start thinking about this issue from your teen’s point of view. This alerts your readiness to listen and prepares you for understanding with an empathetic approach to communication.

Understanding helps you effectively communicate by making your child feel heard. When teens don’t feel like they’re being heard, even in trivial conversations, they can start to feel isolated. Reaffirming your teen’s external problems and burgeoning a consistent understanding of their core struggles are key steps to improve your relationship. Kids that experience the kind of solidarity produced by understanding are more likely to open up to you about what’s really troubling them

As a parent, you want your teen to feel solidarity with you about their troubles so you can start at a more intimate level the next time you talk. Soon, you’ll start to notice the big picture, or patterns of your child’s more consistent insecurities and concerns. This can alert you to the causes of potential distressed behavior if these problems further develop.


So how can you build off this deeper understanding of your child to further mitigate risky behavior? Dr. Salerno’s tips for improving parent-teen relationships encourage us to help your child think through situations. This is the essence of reflection; using serious thought and consideration to plan and problem-solve.

Reflection functions in communication by allowing you and your teen to exchange ideas together. Once you’ve dug deeper into the “being short” problem, you might learn that it’s actually about your teen not being able to join the basketball team and hang out with their friends. Now you can both try to figure out a solution. Maybe you can invite their friends over this weekend or find some other way to have fun outside of practice. This is how you can get your teen to routinely think through their issues before resorting to erratic reactions.

In order to apply Dr. Salerno’s principles of understanding and reflection, it’s important to establish some ground rules before you engage your teen. This is one of my favorite tips for improving parent-teen relationships because it’s definitive and can help you and your teen develop respect for one another. First, recognize that it is completely normal for your teen to dramatize their conflicts. Meaning, this is just a phase of cognitive development. When met with patience, you can employ understanding and reflection in an effective manner.

If your teen exclaims that they’ve just gone through a messy breakup and that they’ll never show their face in school again, you can practice understanding by filtering through the drama and thinking through what this situation means to your teen. Demonstrate that you’re trying to comprehend their statement by repeating back to them what they just said. “This person broke up with you, you’re upset, and you don’t want to show your face in school again.” Not only does this help you process the information, but it acts as a second voice for your teen to hear the situation outside their head.

According to Dr. Salerno’s tips for improving parent-teen relationships, responding with unexpected observations about the situation can deescalate high drama situations by having your teen reflect on the consequences of their thinking, you might want to respond with something like, “Okay! You’ll have to drop out then and start working on your GED.” This response isn’t punitive, but rather seriously engages what your teen is saying. An unexpected statement like this provides your teen with forethought about their actions. If your teen never goes to school again because of this break up, they will have to find alternative means of staying educated and working on their career in a new setting.

By taking your teen’s ideas seriously, you’re able to highlight discrepancies in their reasoning and get them to collaborate with you about solutions. In regard to more serious situations like drug use, sex, and drunk driving, the method remains the same: start by understanding your teen and then help them reflecting on the outcome of their decisions. Over time, applying these tips for improving parent-teen relationships will deter risky behavior when your teen is on their own in the future.

There’s more to these tips for improving parent-teen relationships than just understanding and reflecting!

Your teen also needs to be able to stick to their commitments and thought process under tense situations, like facing peer pressure. In the podcast, we discuss several in-depth methods of how to prep your teen for on-the-spot critical thinking and independent de-escalation practices. Hear more about these and related topics in the full episode.

Jennifer’s interview is packed with tips for improving parent-teen relationships that can be used in everyday communication to spread positivity and encouragement to your kid.

In this episode we cover:
  • A step-by-step method for using statements to dig deeper in a conversation

  • The “magic” sentence to get your teen talking about their day

  • Dealing with teens’ tendency toward drama

  • How and why it’s important to turn “why?” into “what?”

  • Getting your teen’s intentions to line up with their behaviors
I thoroughly enjoyed discussing these topics with Dr. Salerno. She has so much passion for her work and it shows in each and every one of her tips for improving parent-teen relationships! Her experience in the medical field and working closely with teens provides such a robust and accessible system for parents to use. I learned so much listening to her, and I know you will, too!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Ep 52: Get Your Teen to Think
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