Tami Walsh says her life coaching company, TeenWisdom.com, stemmed from “a promise I made to myself when I was a teenage girl. After a horribly mean act done to me by other teen girls, the tons of tears I cried … the constant desire to look pretty and feel accepted by others, I decided that one day I was going to commit my life to making life better for other teen girls.”

Today, when she’s not busy coaching teen girls one-on-one in southern California, Tami travels around the country talking with teens and parents about the toughest issues facing this generation, providing gentle, sage advice on how, as she puts it, to build bridges of communication instead of burning them down. As one of the first (if not the first) life coaches for teens, Tami brings a unique perspective to the issues facing today’s youth—and she’s making good on that promise in a big way. — J.D.M.

Tami, how did you get into doing what you do?

I was a counselor in inner-city Los Angeles, working with kids who were at risk to be in gangs—some of them already in gangs. It was frontline work, constantly handling crises and putting out fires, and I was so consumed with dealing with the violence, drugs and poverty, that I didn’t feel I could really make the kind of difference I wanted to make.

How long did you do that?

I’d only planned to stay for a year or two, but I fell in love with the families. For a while, I really felt I could bring value to their lives. I was responsible for more than a thousand kids. I ended up doing that for six years before I got physically exhausted and burned out.

I wanted to take my passion for working with youth and apply it in a more productive, proactive way, and the coaching model seemed like the perfect way to do that.

Coaching is about supporting people to move from where they are to where they want to be. That felt like a natural fit for the age group I wanted to work with. In a way, an adolescent’s life is all about going through this major transition, from kid to teen to young adult to adult. How great that would be, to have a life coach help them move through this confusing part of their lives with as much self-esteem and feeling of empowerment as possible.

So I began life coaching. That was eight years ago, in 1999.

How did you begin?

I started out just by connecting with people in the neighborhood who knew me through a charity I was involved with. One day, a woman I’d just met asked me, “What do you do?” and I said, “I’m a life coach for teens.”

She said, “Wow! What’s that?”

I can’t wait to hear how you answered.

I said, “Well, it’s basically a person who holds a teenager accountable, supports them, encourages them, and kind of mentors them to get through their adolescence by helping them set goals and improve their academic performance and their relationships.”

She said, “That sounds great! I have a teenage boy, an eighth-grader—could you work with him?”

I’d planned to work only with girls, but I told her yes, and she hired me to work with her son. For the sake of his privacy, I’ll call him “Jeremy.”

When we started, his grades were up and down, and his parents were frustrated because they felt he wasn’t living anywhere near up to potential. We sat down together and I said, “Okay Jeremy, what’s going on in these classes? What’s getting in your way? And what are we going to do about it?” We worked out a plan and started tracking his progress every week.

At the same time, we worked on improving his communication with his parents. He started procrastinating less and his motivation improved, and soon his grades went from C’s to A’s.

Bet his mom was happy.

His mom thought I was magic! But the magic was in the relationship the two of us created together. That’s the powerful thing about coaching: creating a relationship that is completely mutually beneficial. Jeremy could feel the value I brought into his life, and I got to feel that what I was doing was making a real difference.

How did you set that up, practically?

Once a week I would go to his house, and we’d sit at the kitchen table with a white board and list all his classes and assignments. So there was that organizational side to it, but what I was really doing was helping him look at the issues in his life. Why was he procrastinating so much, why was he blowing off his work? What was going on with his attitude?

Jeremy was a great kid whose social life was taking off and who just didn’t see tremendous value in some of the work he was doing. He was one of those kids who was smart but wasn’t applying himself. I worked to help him link his choices to their consequences and helped him feel at choice in his life.

He would look forward to our sessions, because he knew he had someone to hold him accountable. He knew I would ask him, “Did you get that paper done? How’d you do on that test? Let me see what you studied.”

It’s fascinating that sitting down with one person, for one hour a week, would take him from C’s to A’s, where the entire school system couldn’t effect that result.

It’s amazing, isn’t it?

How is he doing today?

He’s twenty-one now, finishing up his last year of college. He comes by my office every Christmas, gives me a hug and tells me how he’s doing.

How did your practice grow from there?

Jeremy’s mom started singing my praises in the community, and one kid led to another, to another. One teenage girl would be coaching with me, and while I’d be sitting there coaching with her, she’d get on the phone to her best friend and say, “You have to meet Tami! Here, talk to her—” and hand me the phone. I’d say hi and talk with the friend for a minute, and she’d say, “I’m going to have my mom get your number from Rachel’s mom.”

It was very grassroots, going from mom to mom and teen to teen. Pretty soon I was driving from house to house, meeting with all these kids, talking with them about everything from their school to their relationships, breakups with boyfriends, body image issues, anything and everything going on in their lives.

How did the practice lead to your giving group presentations?

After I’d been coaching for about a year, I started seeing common threads and themes. One thing I kept seeing was a breakdown of the communication between parents and teenagers.

In many cases, parents would hire me hoping I would serve as the liaison between them and their child. Given the personal and confidential nature of the coaching relationship, I felt that put me in a very difficult position. I would spend an hour in a teenage girl’s room talking with her, and then her mom would follow me out the front door to the car, asking me, “How is my daughter? What’s going on with her?”

I realized there was a need for someone to talk to parents about what their kids were telling me—about the stresses and pressures they were feeling, and that the way their parents were trying to communicate with them was often making them feel even crazier and more stressed.

I developed a program called “Communication: Turning Battles into Bridges with Your Teenager.” I took that to several schools in the area and started speaking to parent groups, telling them about the bridges of communication that I believed they were burning every day, and about ways to rebuild those bridges.

I started speaking to local Girl Scout chapters and other girls’ organizations about all the topics girls were bringing to me in coaching. I developed a workshop called “When A-Minus Isn’t Enough,” talking about the pressures they feel to be perfect and to hyperachieve.

My next step is to train other coaches to do what I do. That’s what I’m involved in right now. Through this training program, I can teach other people how to shortcut what took me eight years to build. There’s a powerful need out there to help teens—and I can’t do it alone!

Do you spend the bulk of your time now giving talks and training, or do you still do individual coaching, too?

I still do a ton of one-on-one coaching. I absolutely love it. I put probably 60 percent of my time into coaching, and divide the rest between motivational speaking, and working on material to help train other coaches.

Do you find that adults have distinct stereotypes about this generation?

I think there are several misconceptions. The first is that this is a generation of kids who don’t care about anybody but themselves. That they’re so self-absorbed, they don’t care about issues affecting other people, their communities, our country or our planet. And that’s just not true.

I’ve had girls in my office crying about the war and the state of the planet. I have one girl who’s started a global warming club in her school, and another girl who’s building homes for poor families here in San Diego. These girls are motivated to make a difference.

In the kids I’m working with, I see an abundance of hope, vision and desire. Yes, they’re teenagers and young adults, and they’re very self-absorbed, as anyone that age should be. That’s developmentally very appropriate. But they do care. And they want to be involved with cutting-edge trends and changes, especially if there’s a social cause.

So, the world is larger than MySpace.

Very much so. A lot of these kids are being raised by baby boomers who have become helicopter parents. I see these parents doing a lot of hovering over their kids, worrying that they aren’t going to be as self-motivated as they could be.

And marketers are jumping through hoops to get their attention.

The Millennial generation has a huge amount of buying power, and they are being marketed to constantly. This makes them vulnerable to consumerism. They want the latest and greatest hip trends, they want their iPhones and $1,300 Mark Jacobs purses—and that’s not just the richer kids.

Delaying gratification is hard for them. They do their homework with FaceBook, MySpace and Instant Messenger all on at the same time. They can multi-task better than anyone, but it also keeps them very stressed out. And the way they’re bombarded by marketing and mass media stresses them out even more.

I’m also concerned that there’s way too much “hooking up,” which can mean anything from making out to having sex. In the last couple of years, this has become so much more prevalent, and my coaching has had to take on the role of character and moral education around sex, dating and relationships.

Parents don’t really know how to talk about this with their kids—and the kids don’t want to talk to them about it anyway. No generation wants to talk to their parents about sex. That’s an area of big concern for me.

That would seem to go hand in hand with how freely available digital media are.

Absolutely. The Internet has given them so much more opportunity to have sexual conversations.

At the same time, the teen pregnancy rate is actually down in this country, so I’m not saying we’re in serious trouble. But I am concerned about the sexualization of this generation. What’s upsetting is the sense that there’s an absence of conscience around what they’re doing sexually. They just don’t see anything wrong with it.

Is this simply part of our “free for the having” context? Free information, song downloads, movie downloads, opensource software—technology has created a world where everything is freely available.

Yes, and it creates a huge issue of entitlement, because they really can get anything they want, pretty much anytime they want.

So where do you see that leading? Where do we need to go?

There’s nothing revolutionary about what I’m going to say here: I think we need to put more emphasis on family time, on raising kids with values. That might mean religion, or whatever it is that imparts your values.

Here’s something really important that the research shows: parents do have a major influence on their kids’ values. Kids’ peers influence their behavior—but it’s their parents who really influence their values. And if the values are in place, they’re less likely to be influenced in the moment.

We need to be wary of overscheduling our kids. They pick up on how overworked and exhausted their parents are. We need to stop and take stock of how we’re running ourselves and our families. What are our priorities? Perhaps we need to make family time sacred and go back to sitting down every night to dinner.

In a society where everything is digitized and moving so fast, we need to slow down some, and take more time to reconnect to each other.

Do you see the trend towards home-based business making a difference for this generation?

Absolutely, and it’s a very good thing, because when you’re home more, even if you’re just there and not even talking or communicating at the moment, that in itself is a positive influence. The research bears this out.

At the same time, I work with single parents, moms working from home as network marketers or loan officers or whatever, who have a really difficult time creating a clear demarcation between work and family time. Teenagers will come home from school and find their moms on a conference call and completely unavailable to them.

I hear teenagers say, “She’s always on the phone when I get home.” So they go sit at their computers and talk to their friends. Meanwhile, resentment is building up—and now you have the bridges burning down.

Being in the home is a start, but you also have to make sure those doors are open, literally and figuratively, so there’s real connection happening. I’ve sat down with families and helped them schedule times when mom will not take any conference calls.

It takes mindfulness and a conscious commitment to creating the structures and systems we need to connect the family with each other.

What can we learn from this generation?

The first thing to realize that we can learn from them. They have amazing knowledge, and they love it when we ask them about that.

For example, we can utilize their savvy regarding technology. That can be a great bridge-builder. I have parents who’ve had their kids do graphic design for them. I can’t tell you how many have told me, “Thank God my kid is so good on the computer—he set up a blog for me.”

And it’s not limited to technology. Ask them for their opinions and perspectives on issues facing the world. Don’t always be talking to them about homework, their soccer practice and making sure their cleats are packed. Ask them self-reflective questions to draw out their own thoughts, because that’s what they want. They love to share their opinions. Those opinions may tend to be dark, negative or judgmental—but that’s okay, it’s just where they are, and they won’t stay that way.

Do you see a strong entrepreneurial bent in these young people?

Yes, and to an extent that is to the parents’ credit, because that’s who they’re modeling. Most of my Millennials have parents who are entrepreneurs or home-based business owners. In fact, I have very few Millennials whose parents work at some sort of conventional job. They’re all creative, think-out-of-the-box type people.

And yes, that has absolutely rubbed off on this new generation. I have so many kids who want to create their own major in college or create a triple major. They’re not a lazy group.

That entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with their desire to be on the cutting edge, their ability to use the Internet and their always being up on the newest of the new, makes this an amazingly creative group.

Do you expect to see many more people doing the kind of teen coaching you do?

That’s my goal. Since I started coaching, I’ve spoken to over 10,000 kids in schools and coached over 5,000 kids personally. Now it’s time to put my energy into training and certifying other coaches who want to learn how to do the same thing. There are so many teens who could use a life coach. They need someone they respect and can connect with, who is there for them, who mentors them, supports them and holds them accountable.

We need more people helping teenagers today, and this is an amazing way to do that.

If you could leave our readers with one last thought, what would it be?

Believe it or not, teenagers do want to connect with their parents. Maybe not for hours a day, but they need you in their lives. In fact, this is more true now than ever, because they’re being so heavily pushed and pulled and sold and pandered to.

Create rituals with these kids. Create traditions; spend time. They may not come out and say it, but they need your values. They need your time. They need you.