Exclusive Interview with Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski
Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and your background?
Here’s my official bio:
Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is an RN, educator, author, and counselor who has blessed to serve young people since 1970.
Dr. Mary Jo began serving teen parents in the 70s, taught her first sex education in 1981, and founded The Washington Health System Teen Outreach in 1988. She and her staff have presented sexuality education to over 250,000 young people and mentored over 15,000 young parents. Dr. Podgurski is the author of 37 books, including The Nonnie SeriesTM for adults and children on challenging topics – she wrote Nonnie Talks about Quarantine in ten days in response to the pandemic and gave away over 500 copies. Her most recent book is for adults: Sex Ed is in Session – An Adult Guide to Connecting with Young People about Life’s Tough Topics.
Dr. Mary Jo is a past president of Lamaze International and a certified LCCE (childbirth educator). She is certified in both sexuality education and sexuality counseling from AASECT (American Association for Sexuality Educators Counselors and Therapists). She is an authorized facilitator for the Darkness to Light Stewards of Children child abuse prevention program, and a certified Olweus Bullying Prevention Program trainer.
Dr. Mary Jo is the recipient of many awards, including the Athena Award, the NAACP Humanitarian Award, the Staunton Farms Albert J. Craig Award for excellence in mental health, and the Healthyteens Network Carol Cassell Award for Excellence in Sexuality Education.
She and her partner Rich are the parents of three adult children and grandparents of six wonderful grandchildren.
I absolutely love what I do. I love teaching! I am an adjunct faculty at Washington and Jefferson College, continue to teach in schools, and do trainings for professionals and parents. My focus is interactive education with an emphasis on worthiness. I believe empowering young people to own their own self-worth is a mission, not a job.
I started the Common Ground Teen Center in 2008. Since then, we have served over 2500 individual teens for over 33,000 visits! I hire teens and my college students as teen center staff. Young people rise to positive expectations if given guidance, respect, and independence.
Can you briefly describe your books in The Nonnie Series, and why you decided to write them?
I was a pediatric oncology RN in the early 1970s. In that capacity, I served many children with terminal diagnoses. The experience changed me. I encountered two brothers; the younger boy was very ill and the older was a true support, even enduing a bone marrow transfer. One day, the boys shared their concerns for their parents. Both children knew the younger boy was dying, but their parents never spoke of the cancer’s reality with them. The boys told me they pretended not to know to spare their parents, just as they pretended to believe in Santa.
Children are wise, they listen, they absorb what happens around them. I write the Nonnie books to encourage communication between adults and children/youth about the topics most adults avoid. The ‘elephant in the living room’ is often so large and obvious the tension permeates children’s’ lives, but adult reticence sends a strong message. Children need support. If they do not receive it from their trusted adults, they will turn to online sources. Or seek no support. Adults matter.
I address the most challenging topics. To date, I have written 11 Nonnie books: Consent, Death, Disability, Gender, Pregnancy and Birth, Puberty, Quarantine, Race, Relationships, Sex and Trauma. I’m currently writing Nonnie Talks about Mental Health.
I respond to current needs. I wrote Nonnie Talks about Trauma after the Parkland shooting and Nonnie Talks about Quarantine in the first weeks of the pandemic. I hold focus groups for each book. I listen to children in grades 3 – 4 and 5 – 6, and young people in grades 7 – 8. Their comments are worthy of their own book! They are my best reviewers.
Why do parents find it so difficult to discuss tough topics with kids?
I think parents fear damaging their young one’s childhood with what they perceive as adult topics. The reality is children reflect the world. They listen to news; they hear comments from adults. Emotional reactions to death or disability or trauma can be stifled if not discussed.
Parents may also fear they do not have the ‘right’ words. I believe parents are the best teachers for their own children. I want to guide them to connect. The Nonnie Series seeks connection.
Since many parents are juggling even more since COVID-19, how can they have tough conversations without feeling completely overwhelmed?
Conversations do not need to be long or in depth. It is important to answer a child’s questions. Less is more. Giving small answers or reading the brief chapters in the Nonnie Series can ease anxiety. Addressing tough topics in little bites makes it easier for both the child and the parent. I guide parents to be there for their children, to hold space, and to open doors. It’s okay for a parent to be honest. Sharing the anxiety they may feel from COVID can be a bridge to their children disclosing their own anxiety. A shared conversation about feelings can be cathartic.
Tell us about your latest Nonnie book, Nonnie Talks About Mental Health.
I’m a huge advocate for easing the stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment. We tend to expect people to ‘snap out of’ depression; we would never expect a child to hobble around on a broken leg, but we often think mental health can be fixed at home.
The main characters in The Nonnie Series are Tamika and Alex (and, of course, Nonnie). Nonnie Talks about Mental Health is the natural next step in their journey. They will explore an attempted suicide of a friend, talk about their own anxieties, look at common childhood diagnoses like ADHD, and react to Nonnie’s breast cancer with angst.
The young people I serve are drawing illustrations of their own mental health diagnoses. I want the book to be a resource any child or parent can turn to when confronting the complicated and often frightening world of mental illness.
How early should parents or adults be discussing mental health with children?
Children learn best by example. Emerson said, “What you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say.”
Adults can teach about a tough topic by example, without even dwelling on the topic. For example, teaching toddlers how to step back mentally, take a centering breath, and accept their feelings, is a great way to explore the concept of mental health. The parents do not need to discuss something intense to introduce children to the idea that our mental health is as important as our physical health.
As a pediatric oncology nurse, one of my favorite tasks was knowing what brought joy to my young patients. I discovered their favorite foods, their best TV shows, the music and books and video games they loved. I cared for their mental health as much as their physical health.
I have two delightful grandchildren who are three. I model kindness. I validate their feelings. I hear them. Examining a child’s emotions and offering empathetic acceptance helps children learn their bodies and minds are interconnected. Caring for mental health is simply caring for the whole child.
What are some things parents can do to help their children with uncertainty in today’s world?
1. Listen to hear them. Small children will not typically tell a parent what is troubling them, but they will ask to play.
2.Hold space. Holding space means spending time with children without judgment or expectation. Give the gift of your presence.
3. Remember adult reactions are reflected in children. I’ve been honored to serve young child sexual abuse survivors. Too often a child is exposed to trauma twice – once when it happens, and again when we react poorly to the abuse. Children take their cue from us.
4. Articulate the obvious. Say, “Did you overhear your uncle talking about ____today? How do you feel about what you heard? I’m here. Let’s talk about it.
Tell us about #EachPersonisaPersonofWorth and what it means to you?
I was fortunate. I was raised by two exceptional, kind, respectful parents. My papa was a 14-year-old Italian immigrant who taught me by example. He gave me self-worth. In my books, I tell many stories about the way he instilled respect in me. I took his lessons to heart and added my own experiences in education, nursing, and counseling. I believe we are born worthy – we do not need to earn worthiness; it is our human right.
#EachPersonisaPersonofWorth means I cannot judge another unless I am perfect. It means I will treat all those I encounter with dignity and respect. It means I will model worthiness to the young people I serve. It means I must debate without hate.
Where can people find more information about you and your work?
My website is https://www.drmaryjopodgurski.com/
I founded the Academy for Adolescent Health in 1988. The Academy website is https://www.healthyteens.com/