As a professional coach who helps top achievers become peak performers, I sometimes get invited to chat with parents and teachers about their teens and how to help them reach their fullest potential. Last night I had such an experience.

I was scheduled to be the second of two speakers and was waiting for my turn. The first speaker began by asking the parents to create a list of all the negative things their teenagers do. Ouch! As this presenter wrote the growing list on the white board, I copied it all down. This is what their litany of negative teenage behaviors looked like:

• Think they know everything

• Don’t communicate well with adults

• Take over all communication channels in the house

• Have a lack of independence

• Succumb easily to peers

• They sleep in

• Always hungry

• Expect too much

• Don’t communicate with family

• Don’t understand the parent’s role

• Try to test you

• Exhibit a lack of gratitude

Afterwards, the presenter opened the debate on how parents could eliminate these negative behaviors. In her concluding remarks, the presenter said that there was great hope that a teenager could change and admonished the parents to not get discouraged. It took quite a bit of effort to shift the thoughts of the room from negative feelings to any kind of positive possibility. The parents weren’t very willing to let go of the downer list they had just created.

Diagnosed with Ephebiphobia

As I sat in the room, there was one teenage girl seated nearby, looking defensive and uncomfortable. I could almost read her thoughts. “So, this is what happens at parent-teacher meetings? They get together to thrash teenagers?” She was not impressed. Then she simply blurted out, “Ephebiphobia!”

Everybody turned to say “What?”

She said again, “E-phe-bi-phobia.” And then got up and walked out.

After the break she came back in and sat down. I was glad she did, and I started my talk with her word. Ever heard of it? Most people haven’t. Ephebiphobia: the persistent and unwarranted fear of youth.

I looked again at the list still on the wall, then turned to the teenage girl. I said I didn’t want to put her on the spot, but there was something important that needed to be said, and I needed her assistance. She could sense that I was going to stand up for the teen side of things, so she cautiously agreed to help me. I then picked one of the items on the list: “They sleep in.”

I asked her if she liked to sleep in. “Of course,” she said. I said, “Then this one should be a positive, right?”

She nodded and looked at the parents, expecting a reaction.

I pointed to another one. “They possess a lack of gratitude.”

She said, “So do parents.”

“So this is not a problem exclusive to teens?”

“No,” she said.

I pointed to one last one. “Think they know everything.” “Do you know everything?” I asked.

She shrugged and said, “Maybe we don’t know everything, but I sure know a lot more than my parents about the computer and the Internet. I also know a lot more about music and movies.”

“Should be a positive then, right?” I noted.

“If you would trust us to make better decisions,” she said, “we would be able to make better decisions.”

Some of the others in the room didn’t understand what she was saying, but I got the message loud and clear.

Remedies and Prescriptions

This teen gave us some valuable lessons in human relationships:

1. Anything you consider as a negative may have validity in someone else’s mind as a positive.

2. We are quick to point out faults in others that we possess ourselves.

3. Others have many gifts that we often overlook.

4. In trusting in a person’s desire to do well, we empower her to do even better than we expect.

Teens genuinely are searching to do what will bring them the most happiness and the best outcomes. They all have their own individual dreams and aspirations. Our job is to support and point out possibilities rather than taking a position of judgment.

When teens feel that you care about what matters to them, things change. Any desire for change or improvement can only grow from within the individual. Given an environment of positive encouragement, teenagers begin to see the limitless possibilities that exist. That is when magic happens.

While in China, I met a young girl who went by the English name Sunny. Thirteen years old, with dark hair and bright eyes, Sunny was chosen as a delegate from China to represent her country at an international science fair in Switzerland. Her project expounded on the engineering principles that bumble bees use to construct their hives using octagonal shapes.

I was blown away. I had never met a thirteen-year-old who could imagine such things, let alone explain them. While she was in Switzerland, Sunny beat out hundreds of other projects from teens, and she returned to her country as a champion. When I met her again with her father in China, I was impressed by something he said: “I encourage Sunny to prepare presentations about astronomy, because I like astronomy. She likes bees. I am glad that she tells me no, because she likes bees.

Sunny was able to follow her passion. Her predilection was respected. Sunny won the competition because she was allowed to be Sunny. Our teens will excel when we trust the good that is within them and allow them to explore their passions in a positive environment of support. n

Douglas Vermeeren is a speaker and author on turning human potential into top performance—in business, entertainment, finances and athletics. He was the first North American to be invited to train Communist and education leaders in China, where he received a distinction from the Wu Zhai University for his achievement programs for teens.