Be at Your Best to Do Your Best: Self-Care Strategies for Camp Counselors

When you decided to be a summer camp counselor this summer, you made a great choice. Few summer jobs offer as many opportunities for personal growth and leadership development, or allow you to have such a meaningful, positive impact on a child’s life. Being a camp counselor won’t be as easy as some summer jobs, but it has the potential to be much more rewarding. Even before the season starts, you will be inundated with information about everything from camp policy guidelines to camper behavior management strategies. It might seem overwhelming, and it probably will be at times. For the next couple of pages, however, forget about all of it. Not because it isn’t important — it is — but because my job is to help you take care of yourself so that you, your colleagues, and your campers have the best summer possible.

Aspirations and Inspirations

You have probably heard all sorts of advice about taking care of yourself, being a better student, and so on. We'll get to the advice section next. First, I want you to think about three deeper, aspirational goals to guide you throughout the summer. Think of what inspires you, and think of the deeper reasons that brought you to camp, like "I want to make a difference with a camper who has a hard time," or "I want every camper in my cabin to make two good friends." Having a set of aspirational goals to shoot for can help you stay on course throughout a busy summer, and help you find your way when you get lost. The main idea is to be guided in your self-care by a greater philosophy, rather than just receiving a list of random self-help tips. So, before reading any further, take a few minutes to think about your "big picture" goals for the summer and write them down. The Self-Care Worksheet in Figure 1 is meant to link your aspirational goals directly to your strategies for taking care of yourself.

Practical Ways to Take Care of Yourself

Sleep More, Drink Less
Healthy sleep habits are much more important than you might realize — which is why I am mentioning them first. Sleep research has taken off in the past few years, linking unhealthy sleep patterns to everything from depression to violence and obesity. More and more evidence suggests that with good sleep habits, the risk of just about everything bad you can think of goes down, and the risk of everything good goes up. There is also emerging evidence that fixing sleep patterns can go a long way toward fixing many problems. Most of you reading this are somewhere between seventeen and twenty-two years old. Young adults in your age bracket generally need about eight to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. Sleeping in or taking naps during rest hour does not make up for a habit of getting too little uninterrupted sleep. Moreover, alcohol interferes significantly with the body's ability to get the right kind of sleep, which is one of the reasons people feel sluggish and sore the morning after too much drinking, even if they've slept in. The bottom line? Get eight to nine hours a night as often as you can and don't get drunk. You'll feel more rested and you'll do a better job.

I would also guess that you have heard all sorts of horror stories about the effects of alcohol abuse, drunk driving, etc. I won't review all of this for you again, other than to say that getting drunk when you are responsible for other people's children (and I am counting those times at night when something unexpected happens and you need to be ready) could lead to a catastrophe from which you will never recover. Instead, think of alcohol and drug abuse as a completely preventable source of stress.

Take a minute to think about what might stop you from getting enough sleep or from partying too much. Different people have different factors that influence their sleep patterns. For example, many of you look forward to spending summer nights out with your friends, which is a lot of fun, but can easily get out of hand. Others might be kept up at night by the stress of their job or the stress of being away from home. Which is it likely to be for you? If you are not sure, ask one of your trusted friends, or think of a situation that you have been in before that is similar to being a counselor, and review how you handled temptations and challenges. Write down some of your thoughts on the Self-Care Worksheet.

Take Time Off and Use It Well
Any professional who works with children (and yes, that includes camp counselors) knows how easy it can be to get overworked or burned out. When given the opportunity to take time off, you should take it, whether you want to or not. You will benefit from the perspective and refreshment of being outside the camp community and having a brief vacation from the responsibilities of caring for your campers. Here are some tips for good use of your time off:

  • Plan out what you want to do in advance, and allow yourself to look forward to it. Looking forward to your time off doesn't mean you aren't dedicated to your campers or your camp. Rather, looking forward to time off acknowledges that you are an adult who has other interests beyond your job and being around kids all of the time. Just don't plan or talk about your time-off exploits within hearing of the campers, because that will make them feel second rate and isn't appropriate anyway. Have a good time, and keep the good times between adults.
  • Don't try to pack too much in. Remember that if you want to drive somewhere three hours away, that also means three hours back, which means six hours in the car on a day off. Do you really want to spend so much time getting to and from your "vacation"?
  • Don't do things that cause more stress, like breaking underage drinking laws, drinking and driving, or breaking rules about curfew. Time off is supposed to reduce stress, so give yourself some respite by doing things that don't cause you to worry about getting caught for something you shouldn't be doing. Write down some options on the Self-Care Worksheet.

Know Yourself and Reach Out to Others
How do you really know when you are not at your best? What "cues" do you get from your mood, your behavior, or your friends? Some counselors notice they feel angry too often, or they find themselves not wanting to be around their campers anymore. Others feel nervous about approaching a difficult situation with a camper or a peer. Sometimes, problems arise that just don't seem to have an obvious solution. In these situations, making use of the camp community can be quite helpful.

First, take a moment to think about your own "warning signs" that indicate you are having a hard time. Think of what you notice in yourself and what others are likely to notice about you. Second, identify a supervisor and some friends or trustworthy colleagues who you know you can talk to, and who you can trust to be honest with you. Use the Self-Care Worksheet to write down a few specifics. Talk to all of these people about your strengths and weaknesses and how they will know when you are having a hard time. Give them permission to "confront" you when they see you struggling, and ask them about helping you out when necessary over the summer. This way, when you do get stuck on a problem with yourself or your job (or both), you will have existing relationships you can use to start working on problem-solving strategies. Trusted friends and supervisors can help you develop a plan that starts with identifying your most recent success or the last time you felt confident as possible reference points to develop solutions. Don't worry if the solutions to helping your mood or solving a problem don't seem obvious at first. Talking through the issues and options with someone you trust almost always helps you find your way.

Taking Care of Yourself Matters

Your chances of having a fun, meaningful summer go up if you take deliberate steps to take care of yourself. Every couple of weeks, take out the Self-Care Worksheet and see how you are doing with your goals and strategies. If all else fails, remember a simple acronym that comes out of interventions for addiction: HALT. Don't get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. The skills you learn and the experiences you have this summer can guide you the rest of your life. To do your best, you have to be at your best. Work hard, be good, and take care of yourself. 

Dr. Ethan D. Schafer received his Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in 2004 after graduating from the University of Michigan in 1998. He is a licensed child clinical psychologist practicing and consulting with schools in Ohio, and also consults with summer camps across the country.

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