Jennifer Salerno, is an author, speaker, nurse practitioner, and founder of Possibilities for Change. Drawing on her professional expertise, research and her own experience as a mother, Dr. Salerno authored the book, “Teen Speak: A how-to guide for real talks with teens about sex, drugs and other risky behaviors.” Dr. Salerno’s book aims to empower and equip parents with practical tools to broach difficult topics to support healthy teen development. The book is split into three components covering: getting to know your teen, talking with your teen and avoiding common pitfalls. Dr. Salerno believes in fostering the individual strengths of teens and helping them become independent and responsible problem solvers. To learn more about “Teen Speak,” check out our Q & A with Dr. Salerno.
Tell us a little bit about your own teen years. Was there a particular defining moment in your own life that led to your work with teens?
“Just like every teenager, I made my fair share of mistakes and engaged in some risky behaviors that made my mother’s “hair turn gray.” Being a teen (and all the missteps that come with it) is all part of growing up, learning and becoming an adult. I’m thankful for all of my experiences and those who guided me along the way. I was very fortunate to have educators, family, mentors and friends who steered me in the right direction.
The defining moment that led me to really dedicate my career to tackling teen risky behaviors was during my time at the University of Michigan. As a nurse practitioner and director of the school based health center program, I faced the daily challenge of identifying and reducing risky behaviors among the teens I worked with. I lacked the necessary tools, technology and systems to pinpoint potential issues and effectively create change. Considering nearly 75% of serious injury and premature death in teens is a result of preventable, risky behaviors, I knew something needed to be done. There needed to be a change. Out of that experience, my company Possibilities for Change was born. With my team of advisors, medical professionals and adolescents, I developed the initial RAAPS risk screening system.”
You mention risky behaviors throughout your book. Can you explain why teenagers are so inclined to engage in dangerous behaviors?
“Risk taking is a part of normal teen development. It is the type and level of risk that cause parents concern. Even low risk in some behaviors can have serious consequences. A huge component in understanding teens and why they engage in risky behaviors is simply understanding how they’re wired developmentally. The big changes happening in your teen’s body and mind that are affecting their feelings and emotions, and ultimately influencing their decisions. These changes are the primary causes of your son’s or daughter’s moods, angry outbursts, tears, indecisiveness, and the many other “out-there” behaviors you are seeing.
Taking that understanding a step further and learning the best approaches to talk with them ultimately strengthens your relationship with your son or daughter so they will make safer decisions when faced with risky situations.”
What would you say is a parent’s greatest asset in supporting their child throughout their teen years?
“Knowing how to effectively engage in a two-way communication that encourages trust and honesty. Studies show that having a strong relationship with your teen is one of the biggest positive influences on their behaviors.
One of the best times to do that, as described in my book, is through family time. With all the family commitments—soccer games, band practice, work trips, etc.—some parents find it hard to weave out time specifically devoted to family. But it doesn’t have to be anything that complicated or anything that requires a significant amount of time. Quality family time can be over a meal, while riding in the car, taking the dog for a short walk together—anytime you are with your teen without too many distractions. No electronics is key. Find this time at least once per week. It doesn’t have to be a deep conversation. “Tell me about your day” can open the door to anything your teen has on their mind.”
Your book highlights some of the “difficult behaviors” of teens and we all know that teens can push buttons. What kind of encouragement would you offer a parent whose relationship with their teen is on rocky ground?
“The key to having a genuine conversation with your teen is to give them respect and a sense of control. Begin by asking permission. A normal part of development for teens is their struggle for control. When teens give the OK to talk, it makes them much more open to hearing the information you want to share. Another point that I stress in my book is to listen attentively. Ask questions to get your teen talking, and don’t interrupt or share personal stories—no matter how hard that can be. When you want to respond immediately, take a slow, deep breath instead. Your teen should be doing more talking than you. Listening is the key to establishing a mutual, respectful relationship. Your role should be to facilitate conversations, not lead them. Another thing to keep in mind is fostering a sense of self-worth and self-esteem in your teen. Empower them to take care of and value themselves! Feeling in control of their own decisions, planning for risky behaviors and having high self-esteem will increase the likelihood of them not engaging in unsafe behaviors. The more a teen believes in his or her ability to make and sustain a change in their behavior, the more likely they will be to succeed in their planned decision.”
How do you envision parents using your book?
“Many parents and health professionals that have read Teen Speak have said they continue to refer back to the book as a tool and a resource. That was my goal when writing Teen Speak! I tell many parents to start with one or two strategies presented in the book, practice them, and then continue building. Getting this stuff down takes some time.
Dr. Terri D. Wright, director of the American Public Health Association, said, “Teen Speak is the closest thing to an owner’s manual for parents of teenagers. They will find insight about their developing teens and practical advice and guidance on how to support healthy parent-teen relationships. A must read for every parent!” You can find more reviews on the Amazon page or the Possibilities for Change website.”
Can the strategies presented in the book work if only one parent is on board?
“Yes, absolutely. I have already heard from parents reading the book that once they started using some of the strategies when talking with their teen their partner, spouse or significant other saw how it was working and he or she jumped on board.”
What has inspired you the most about working with teenagers?
“There’s a whole chapter in Teen Speak dedicated to how amazing teenagers are. Every teen has great gifts, talents, and resources, but human nature causes us to dwell on what we think is wrong with us instead of what is right—the same is true with parenting. We try to fix our kids rather than appreciating the abilities and strengths they have and expanding on those strengths to help them solve problems or change problem behaviors.
What’s so inspiring about working with teenagers and having teens of my own is their willingness to change. As soon as you start communicating in ways that allow them to feel in control, they will respond and make positive decisions for themselves.”