Ep 52: Get Your Teen to Think

Episode Summary

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!

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

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!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1.  When your teen declares they can’t go to school ever again:

“What would it take for you to feel okay in school again? We both know that you have to go to school – I care about you and really want to help you figure out what it is you need to make things easier.”

-Jennifer Salerno

2.  When your teen is struggling with a promise they made:

(Members Only)

3.  To preserve your teen’s need for autonomy, but still speak your peace, try:

(Members Only)

4.  Instead of “How was x/y/z?”

(Members Only)

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Flip the Drama:

In order to combat a typical teen’s dramatic outbursts, Jennifer Salerno recommends taking the drama “seriously.” Think of a few typical dramatic outbursts from your teen. Write down 3-5 on a piece of paper or in your notes app on your phone. Now, it’s time to get creative! Come up with a new response for each outburst that may surprise your teen. Humor is fine when delivered sensibly, i.e. without sarcasm.
-Teen: “I’m never going to school ever again!!”
-Response: well, I guess you’ll have to start studying for the GED

2.  “Why” to “What”:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: We’re here to talk about mostly your book, which is Teen Speak: A Guide to Understanding and Communicating with Teens.

Andy: And I’m really interested, before we just jump too much into the awesome content in this book, about what inspired you to write it and how you developed this obvious expertise in having difficult conversations with teenagers.

Jennifer: Sure. Yeah, I have as part of my book, some just information that I don’t think a lot of people know about, is that three out of four teen deaths are related to risk factors. So things like texting and driving, suicide, drownings. So the greatest impact you can have on the health of teens is to screen for risk and then effectively talk through those risks that are identified.

Jennifer: When I was working with teens, both in a primary care office and school-based health centers as a nurse practitioner, I developed an easy to use risk screening tool that’s being used now worldwide by professionals that are working with youth to identify those risks that could cause harm for them now and in the future, potentially. But like I said earlier, that’s just the first step because once you learn about a risk, you need to use communication strategies that help teens think through situations.

Jennifer: So that led me to my doctoral work on how to talk with them more effectively. And during that training, a lot of the participants, which were nurses, doctors, teachers, health educators, would say things like, “Wow, this has really helped me with my own kids.” They would share stories of using the strategies at home. There’s a ton of education and resources that are provided to parents with newborns pretty much through five years old. Lots of information for them, lots of excitement, but what happens with parents of 12 to 18 year olds? There’s not a ton of information.

Jennifer: Most people, when you have a teenager are like, “Oh, I feel sorry for you.” They’re not necessarily giving you good information to help you understand where they’re coming from, what their development might look like, how they might be reacting to hormone changes and brain development and how to help them sleep, not just how to help newborns sleep. So all of that led me to write Teen Speak.

Andy: Isn’t that interesting, just how much the parenting industry is focused on babies and there seems like there’s so many people that want to tell you strategies for putting on diapers, but not for how to have a deep conversation with your teenager about the risks that they’re facing in their life and it just seems like there’s a need there.

Andy: You have a couple of different little things that you could say in here, like conversations that might happen in your house. So one of them you talk about is, for example, if your kid comes home from school and says, “I hate being short. I can’t do anything.” So you say to start by acknowledging, then allow him to respond and then following up, pausing for a response and then helping him start to problem solve the issue.

Andy: Can you talk about how you came up with these steps and how we apply these in this situation?

Jennifer: Sure. So the steps are really using theories like motivational interviewing and research because a lot of times we do a lot of research and we have a lot of understanding, but that never really translates to how can we use that information to help them in thinking through situations and feeling differently.

Jennifer: Maybe, like you brought up the example of, I hate being short. I can’t do anything, what they really need to think about and would help with their brain development is what’s underlying that. What is it that they’re not able to do when they say I can’t do anything? So maybe you’re feeling left out. Maybe they weren’t able to make the basketball team. Maybe there’s something else that a friend said. There’s so much bullying going on in school, but letting them respond is really important.

Jennifer: So you’re making some assumptions on why they’re making that statement and then letting them respond so that you know what’s underlying that.

Andy: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It’s like figuring out the deeper level behind what they’re really saying. I feel like the instinct for parents, it’s like, “Oh, that’s okay. There’s tons of people who are short and they’re successful.” And it’s like-

Jennifer: Everybody’s different.

Andy: Right, right, right. It’s like you want to try and talk them out of it and I feel like that’s just like the go-to impulse for any parent of any age, or just a friend even, right, that you see, that’s kind of like struggling with something.

Andy: So what you talk about instead is figuring out, you know there’s a reason that they’re saying that, and it might not always be as simple as just the words that they’re saying. So just taking a second to kind of dig a little deeper and to say something that gets them to continue talking about it and to say, well, what they mean exactly.

Andy: And so I like what you suggest here is just repeating something back to them and making a little bit of an assumption like about what they might’ve been saying. And not even like a question mark, like, “Oh, so you’re feeling left out?” It’s just like, “Oh, you’re feeling left out.” And that statement gets them talking more. It’s really cool.

Jennifer: And there’s a lot of questions that we ask teens that really could be statements. When we ask a question, then teens feel like we’re grilling them or our kids can feel like we’re grilling them. But when we make that same comment as a statement, it makes them feel like they’re being heard or that you understand. So even small little changes like that can really help build a relationship with your teen.

Andy: Okay. So you’re going to say something like that, make a little assumption, “Oh, you’re feeling left out,” and then he’s going to respond with something, whatever it is that was behind there. The example here in the book is, “Yeah. I’m so short, I’ll never make the basketball team.” So now we see, okay. He was saying, “I’m short. I can’t do anything,” but now that we took a second and got a little deeper, we see that, ah, really he’s upset about something related to basketball. He’s not making the basketball team. So then what do we do now?

Jennifer: So at that point, we also don’t want to try to fix it, because that’s what we do as parents, we want to fix it. But at this point they’ve started to share now why he’s feeling like this. So we might say something like, “You’re missing out on time with your friends, by not being part of a team.” Maybe all his friends are on the team or his good friend is on the team and really you’re digging deeper again. It’s not maybe about basketball, but it’s about being with friends.

Andy: Right? I’m so short. I can’t do anything doesn’t mean anything, but if you can try and follow a few levels down until you can get to something that’s core, which is either they’re feeling excluded or they’re feeling like they’re not belonging and they’re trying to gain a sense of love or validation from their peers or from adults or from other people, or they’re trying to feel powerful and they’re struggling to do that, right. So it’s like just, I didn’t make the basketball team is still isn’t even like, well, why is that important? And so getting it down to something that’s about belonging or significance or importance or something like that, that’s really, really core. That’s cool.

Jennifer: And that’s what builds your relationship for them to come to you next time and maybe start a little bit deeper versus starting at the everything’s terrible.

Andy: I like it. So then this is, we’re down to kind of the end here where we dug even deeper than the basketball team thing and tried to say, “Okay, well, so that means you’re maybe missing out on spending time with your friends, but not being part of the team.” And he might respond and say, “Yeah, I never see them anymore. They’re always too busy.” So then he’s affirmed that you’ve kind of hit the true issue by saying, “Yeah, I never see them anymore. They’re always too busy.” So you realize, okay, so it is about the friends and he’s feeling like he’s kind of being left out and missing out by not being on the team. So in that case then how would you kind of follow up on that?

Jennifer: Yep. So that case now you know, or you have a good idea that that’s really the underlying issue, so you’d want to acknowledge that you heard that. So with a reflection again. Hanging out with your friends is important, and then follow up with kind of that planning or that problem solving. What do you think about inviting him over this weekend? That way it won’t interfere with practice. What other ways can you have fun with your friend and have it be outside of that practice time or have to do with basketball, is what you’re trying to get them to think about or get your son to think about.

Jennifer: So the key is really that planning piece. So instead of saying like, “Oh, it’s okay, you’re short, lots of people are short,” we’ve kind of gotten down to what the real issue is and now here’s where the problem solving comes in. So what can we do to fix this?

Andy: So, okay. Another thing that I found really cool in this book is the next chapter is on cognitive development and thinking skills and kind of what happens a lot with teenagers, where they just like to get in arguments for the sake of arguing and you kind of point out that a lot of that has to do with actually their brain development.And they’re getting these cognitive skills are developing and they’re learning kind of how to question things, and so in some respects, it actually is totally developmentally normal and healthy that they’re going to be calling you out and starting arguments with you about your policies.

Andy: So as a parent, that can be really frustrating if your kid is just constantly seems to be an argument mode. So how do you keep the arguments productive?

Jennifer: Mm-hmm (affirmative). This is the piece that parents gravitate to the most within the Teen Speak book, it’s kind of a foundation because once you understand what’s going on with teens, you have a lot more patience and empathy for this is a normal part of brain development. This is a normal part of them growing and getting older and being able to take care of themselves.

Jennifer: So the different lens of looking at it is super helpful and if you do feel like you’re getting in a lot of arguments with your teen, I put on the table like, “Hey, we’ve been arguing a lot lately. Let’s set some ground rules so that we’re not trying to talk over each other, that we both can hear each other.” I mean, really, the listening piece is the most important because we know when we start getting upset about something, we say a lot of things that we don’t mean to say, that we kind of step back, take a deep breath.

Jennifer: When you have rules that it’s kind of a concrete way of stepping back so that each person has to stop talking and then listen to the other person, but really it’s about listening to understand and not to respond.

Andy: Another side effect of the teenage brain development that’s happening in addition to them wanting to argue about everything is drama, is that they want to get overly dramatic about things and so we sort of saw that earlier in the other example that we talked about where it’s like, “I hate being short. I can’t do anything.”

Andy: It’s like the tendency to take this thing and sort of make it just can’t do anything, but completely to the extreme or something like that. But you had a good example here that I liked in this chapter also, that was not about body image, but was your teen says, “Jesse broke up with me. I can never show my face at school again.”

Andy: So how would we walk through this situation and to help them get past the drama?

Jennifer: Sure. And this is something that I’m sure a lot of parents have heard. Like, “I never can go to school again. I can’t show my face.” Whatever happened, it doesn’t even have to be with another person. It could be something they did in class or something embarrassing.

Andy: Something embarrassing happened. Yeah, totally.

Jennifer: Yeah, exactly. So the example that I use in the book is really about trying to get them off of that statement, but you have to be very careful with your tone and how you come across when you use a reflection like I’m going to give you the example of, to try to get them to back down their statement.

Jennifer: So you might respond with something like, “You’ll have to drop out of school and get a GED.”

Andy: Yeah, right.

Jennifer: It kind of throws them off a little bit, because they’re expecting you to be like, “Well, you’re going to school tomorrow and there’s nothing that’s going to stop that,” to kind of get them to move forward or like, “That’s no reason to not go to school.”

Andy: Don’t quit, don’t give up. Yeah, yeah.

Jennifer: Yeah. So there’s a lot of typical responses that we have, which are perfectly okay but if you want to try to be more effective in getting them to think through like, “Okay, what I said was a little bit dramatic. It’s probably not going to happen that I’m never going to school again.” So using a statement like that can help them sometimes get off of that kind of stance and you could it up with a question that gets them to think through.

Jennifer: So what would it take for you to feel okay, going to school tomorrow? Because that’s what’s going to happen. We don’t have to lecture about you’re going to go to school. What will it take for you to feel okay going to school tomorrow?

Jennifer: Sometimes if kids are just really, really upset about something, they might be like, “Nothing.” Then you may follow up with something like, “Well, we both know that you have to go to school. I care about you and really want to help you figure out what it is that you need to make things easier.”

Andy: So, okay let’s talk about the difference between intention and behavior. There’s certain situations like one of them you talk about in here is like, hey, if you have a son or daughter who’s made the decision to wait and have sex, you know? Oh, great, good.

Jennifer: Perfect. I’m so happy.

Andy: All right, good. Brush my hands off, conversation over, great you’re going to wait. Good. But of course, they might be completely serious in that that’s what their intention is, but intention is not the same as actual behavior and they may very well find themselves in a situation where things happen.

Andy: So as a parent, if you’re in one of those situations where you feel like you’ve kind of made a breakthrough, your teen is saying, “Oh yes, I don’t want to use drugs,” or, “I want to be abstinent.”

Andy: That’s great, but so then how do you follow up on that to make sure that it really happens as opposed to just being a nice thing that they think?

Jennifer: A lot of teens do have those intentions. They do want to wait to have sex, or they don’t intend to text when they’re driving or use alcohol or nicotine, any of those things and they don’t actually think about what happens when I’m in that situation.

Jennifer: So coming back to what we talked about earlier, we want them to do the thinking because we know what they could do, or we have a lot of ideas of what they could do, but if they don’t say it themselves and think about it themselves, it’s kind of in one ear and out the other for the most part.

Jennifer: So you may start with, if you are talking about the situation where your son or daughter’s made the decision to not have sex when they’re in high school, or maybe not even that specific, just right now is not a good time for them, they don’t feel like it’s the right time. And then now they’re in a romantic relationship that seems to be getting deeper.

Andy: Right. Getting serious.

Jennifer: Yes. Those are the times that parents get really scared and anxious because to have the conversation now feels more real than when you were having it before, when they didn’t have that opportunity or situation necessarily.

Andy: Yeah. When it’s in the abstract and it’s all fine and good but when we’re sitting in front of… Sure. Okay.

Jennifer: Yep. So you want to start out with some type of statement that shows them that you understand where they’re coming from, where they’re at, what they might be thinking. You might say something like, “It can be hard to wait to have sex when you’re in a relationship and I know that you are really committed to do that,” and then see how they respond to that. So you’re kind of reminding them of the discussions that you had before without saying something like, “Oh, you said you were going to wait to have sex, remember?”

Andy: Yeah.

Jennifer: And they’re like, “Well.” “You were really committed to that and I know it can be hard when you’re in a relationship,” and then stop talking. That’s the hardest part for parents and let them respond to what you said.

Andy: And there’s not really a question in there. Yeah. So you’re just kind of throwing a statement out and you’re just trying to get them to jump in, to reflect on that a little bit.

Jennifer: And then you might ask a question, so you’re not just leaving it there, but you are giving them the opportunity to respond to that and then you would use one of those questions like we’ve mentioned a couple of times, like, “What do you feel you need in order to keep that commitment to yourself?”

Jennifer: And they may have ideas or they may not because they may not have thought about it yet. A lot of teens are not thinking ahead, that’s a normal part of development and an important piece is also give them a few seconds of silence and a lot of people are uncomfortable with silence, but it can be really thought provoking to just give a few seconds.

Jennifer: And if they say, “Well, I don’t know,” and you want to give them a few seconds of silence you could say, “You know what? I really care about what you think, take a few seconds, take a few minutes to think about what you might do or what you might need, because it’s important for me to hear what you think about it.”

About Jennifer Salerno

Jennifer Salerno is the founder of Possibilities for Change and typically has a lot of letters after her name! A nurse practitioner for many years, Jennifer honed her communication skills, to help at risk teens understand the possible consequences of their actions. Her latest book Teen Speak, draws upon tenants of her award-winning Rapid Assessment for Adolescent Preventive Services (RAAPS).

Want More Jennifer Salerno?

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