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Having Real Talks with Teens: A Roadmap to Better Communication

Having Real Talks with Teens: A Roadmap to Better Communication

By Jennifer Salerno, DNP | October 6, 2016
Founder, Possibilities for Change

Whether you’re a parent or an individual who works with youth, you are placed in an influential role to help keep teens safe and healthy. But that’s no easy task!

Risky behaviors account for the majority of teen injury and premature death. In the face of these challenges, educators, providers and parents need concrete strategies to support teens in smart decision making.

The research of my team at Possibilities for Changealong with my work at the School Based Health Center Program and the Adolescent Health Initiative at the University of Michigan, have introduced evidence-based practices and principles that support better communication with teens. In our work, we leverage motivational interviewing techniques to encourage teens to think through their motivations, plan ahead for risky situations and feel empowered to make positive choices. Our ultimate goal is that they make safe and healthy decisions for themselves. 

Tips for Talking

Here’s an approach we’ve used that will work for educators, youth service providers and parents. Professionals can teach these skills to parents.

We suggest starting by using one of our tried-and-true techniques to shape behaviors—roleplays. Of course, outside of a classroom setting, it’s probably not going to work to ask teens to act out situations or read through a script. Not many would take that approach seriously. But you can bring up issues during opportune moments and talk through options and possibilities. This is a sort of “thinking” roleplay process, and it helps teens actively consider and practice decision making.

You can use current events or teachable moments as a starting point. For example, imagine you and a teen see a news story about a collision caused by texting and driving.

  • Make a comment. Avoid a directive warning such as, “See! Look what happens when you text and drive!” Instead, empathize with the situation. You might say, “It can be really hard not to look at a text and respond, even if you’re driving.”
  • Wait. A few seconds of silence is normal. Teens need time to process what’s been said. If you don’t have a response after 30 seconds or so, you might say, “What do you think?”
  • Listen to the response without judgment. A teen might say, “I can text fast. It doesn’t affect my driving.” Or maybe, “Yeah, when I get a text, it’s hard not to look.”
  • Follow up with your concern. You might say, “I worry about you when you’re driving. I don’t want anything to happen to you. No text is worth your life.” Once again, listen to the teen’s response without making judgments.
  • Ask questions to help the teen plan for future situations. For example, if the teen has acknowledged that texting and driving can be dangerous, you might say, “What are some things you could do to keep yourself from checking texts while you’re driving?”
  • Discuss solutions. Listen to the teen’s ideas. Offer some of your own. “Maybe you could put your phone in the glove box when you’re driving, or put it on ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode.”
  • Ask for a commitment. Invite the teen to make a commitment to a plan that will reduce the risks.
  • Follow up. Remind the teen of the plan the next time he or she is about to drive. “Remember when we talked about texting and driving?” Wait a moment and give the teen a chance to tell you the plan. If it’s not volunteered, offer a reminder: “You were going to keep your phone in the glove box whenever you’re driving.”

4 Tips That Build the Roadmap

The steps above can actually be distilled down to four broad tips. We use this structure in many of our discussion activities with teens.


  1. Ask permission. Teens are struggling for control in their lives. That’s developmentally normal. Offering an invitation to talk will be more effective than issuing a directive.

Example: “I’d like to talk with you about the situation that happened at school. When is a good time today?”

  1. Ask open-ended questions. Lecturing isn’t effective in keeping teens safe. Discussions can be. Ask questions that can’t be easily answered yes, no or with just a word or two.

            Example: “Tell me about the party.”

  1. Find their motivations. Find ways for teens to tell you themselves why they need to change a risky behavior.

Example: “What is it about wearing a seatbelt that you don’t like? What are some reasons you should wear one?”

  1. Use change talk. That means help teens think first about what they want to do (Desire), how they would do it (Ability), why they would do it (Reasons) and how important it is to them (Need).


  • “How do you feel about wearing a condom?” (Desire)
  • “How would you protect yourself from STIs if you needed to?” (Ability)
  • “What would be your biggest reason for waiting to have sex?” (Reasons)
  • “How important is it for you to wait to have sex until you’re older?” (Need)

More Guidance

My recently published book Teen Speak offers additional examples and further guidance for effective communication with teens. It explains what’s happening to adolescents from a developmental perspective as they are growing from children to teenagers. It reviews what risk behaviors are most common at each developmental stage as well as the strengths and challenges that influence teen behavior.

The book is geared towards parents, but the suggestions will work for any provider working with youth. It’s also helpful for providers working with parents of teens.


Jennifer Salerno, DNP, is the founder of Possibilities for Change, an organization that is transforming adolescent health through the development of state-of-the-art health care delivery systems designed to support the professional workforce and empower adolescents and their families. She can be reached at


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