Working with teenagers and trying to convince or recruit other people to invest in the lives of teenagers has made me very aware of a problem that is nearing epidemic proportions. There is a lot of ephebiphobia going around and it is rampant. For those not up on their vocabulary words ephebiphobia is the irrational fear and loathing of teenagers. It is also recognized as the “inaccurate exaggerated and sensational characterization of young people”.
You need only talk to any youth pastor, youth worker middle or high school teacher, or parent of an adolescent to discover how widespread ephebiphobia is. I’m treated with near saintlike status when people discover that I’ve worked with pre and early teens for nearly 15 years. “Oh bless you!,” is often the reply I get. “Man, it really takes a special person to work with teenagers,” is another one I hear. The loathing aspect of ephebiphobia is caught in this oft given quip, “I think all kids should be burried (or locked in a closet or shipped off to a deserted island) when they’re twelve and unearthed (or let out or returned to civilization) when they’re 18 (or 25).
I get it. There is a lot of people who just find teenagers difficult, hard to manage, wild and out of control, but is that the norm? If it is the norm should we just be resigned to it being the way things are, and regard them with perpetual suspicision, avoidance, and the lowest possible expectations? As a youth pastor it really bothers me (read REALLY BOTHERS!!!!) that so many people are so negative about teenagers. Allow me to give a few insights that may serve as a rememdy for those who suffer from ephebiphobia?
1. You Were a Teenager Once: It may have been a while but don’t forget what it was like to be a teenager. The teenage/adolescent experience can be summarized by one word… change. Birth to two years old is the only stage of life and development that has more change than the adolescent years. Change is difficult enough as it is for most fully formed adults. It is literally like turning your life upside down as an adolescent. Physical, mental, emotional, social, change change change. Have a little sympathy, no, a little empathy. Everyone expects them to be fully formed adults which by definition they are in the process of becoming but incomplete. When they demonstrate their immaturity (or put another being in process) people resort to treating them like children which again by definition they are not anymore. How frustrating it must be for them if it is for those of us who interact with them?
2. Role of Teenagers in Society: People often feel sorry for today’s youth upon observing today’s social landscape, and all the pressures they face. You’ll often hear the “experts” talk with great tribudation about all the exposure and temptation that the current generation faces that is unparalleled to the previous generations. Could the reason teenagers today face so much temptation and pressure is not because the world is wilder and crazier than ever, but because the world sees adolescents primarily as consumers? Name a product that isn’t primarily targeted at teenagers? Name a product that isn’t marketed by showing how youthful it is? I’m sure you can think of something but it may take a minute. There used to be a day when adolescents and early teens were primarily seen as contributors to society. It wasn’t that long ago that the adolescent stage of life in America was seen as a time to prepare young people for a lifetime of contributing to society and the world. They were pushed and encouraged to cultivate and create. Now that stage of life is treated primarily as a time to prepare them for a lifetime of being customers and consuming things. On opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum you have students who go looking for trouble because they want what they can’t have, or because they have so much they are bored. More and greater things need to be expected of them because they thirst for a life of meaning and significance. All human beings are created to be cultivators and creators and not simply consumers of stuff.
3. Need For an Investment: I recently recruited a new member to my volunteer team. One of the main motivations for getting involved was her unfulfilled desire for someone aside from just her parents to show an interest in her as a developing young woman. The reason why I and others are good with teenagers has nothing to with how cool or hip or knowledgable of youth culture we are. We are good and successful because we care. We care enough to show an interest and make an investment in their lives from our own. I don’t know of a teenager who won’t respond positively to that, or I’ve yet to come across one. Two of the most effective youth ministry volunteers I’ve ever seen were both 50-plus years old, which totally goes against conventional wisdom, but totally makes sense if you ever saw how they loved on and invested in a teenager. They weren’t cool nor hip because and didn’t need to be. They just came alongside of teenagers and provided another safe and constant harbor in the ever changing sea of adolescence. Which allowed for those students to stop being tossed around by the currents of life and just be.