Camp Counseling in the Twenty-First Century: Connecting the Disconnected

by Jeffrey Leiken, M.A.

Throughout the year, Camping Magazine publishes articles for full-time camp professionals. Once a year, it is written specifically for you — the camp staff who are on the front lines doing the intricate work that makes camp come alive and makes the experience so magical and successful for children.

Many of us who write in this issue have decades of experience working with youth, but we began doing exactly what you are going to be doing this summer — working as a camp counselor. We know the challenges you can expect, have made many of the humbling mistakes that we are trying to help you avoid, and more than anything, we believe in the potential for summer camp to change lives. We know, too, without question, that as little as one thing that you say or do this summer can potentially have a life-changing positive impact on a child's life.

There is a development we are observing in youth that it is not yet receiving the national attention that other topics like ADHD and bullying attract, although I believe it should be. As a professional who works intensively with youth, I am noticing kids who are what I call "disconnected"; and I can tell you in all certainty: There are a rapidly growing number of them.

Disconnected Youth

For simplicity's sake, I see three categories of kids who are "disconnected":

  1. Those who are socially awkward. Most commonly these are kids who do not read social cues well or have the social competency to know how to relate to others in a way that makes them appealing or easy to be with — or they just have mannerisms and personality traits to which others are not attracted. Often they are so used to being treated like outsiders that they come to expect to have no friends and/or to be labeled as weird.
  2. Technology addicted kids who spend countless hours entranced by their devices and who literally lack the interest or desire to connect with other people in a meaningful way. They are perfectly content to play their video games and spend time on their computer. They prefer their devices over the messiness, slow pace, and unpredictability of people. Often their parents send them to camp hoping camp will change this. These kids typically do not want to be at camp.
  3. Kids who suffer from social isolation as a result of being the victims of bullies, or who are ostracized because of something over which they have no control. This includes kids who have physiological issues that make them look or speak awkwardly. Kids who might come from a foreign culture might be socially isolated. Often kids who attend special education classes in schools suffer the social stigma associated with this and as a result, can suffer social isolation.

These are the campers who present unique challenges and with whom you will need to work extra hard to ensure they have a successful camp experience.

Socially Awkward

The socially awkward campers have a lot to learn that you could teach them, and yet they won't listen to just anyone. You need to become someone they trust, and even more important, someone from whom they want to learn. This will happen as you slow yourself down to move at their pace, show a genuine interest in their interests, and become someone they let into their inner-world. Ask them the right questions that demonstrate that you are really listening and truly interested, take time to do things with them that they enjoy doing, and make sure to include them in doing things alongside you at a pace that they can do successfully — all will make a huge impact on their trust and faith in you.

Invite these kids to sit next to you at meals. Remember to make eye contact with them, even when they may not be making the effort to do so with you. They're the ones you'll need to sit next to at night, talk about their day, ask about the books on their shelves, listen to their stories, and demonstrate over and above that you truly care.

Once you have established that you do care, you can then begin to offer them suggestions and guidance on how to connect socially. For example: "Can I make a suggestion? A way you might want to ask Jennie to play with you is to say it like this . . . ."

They will be more receptive of specific suggestions from someone they fully trust and the suggestions show up almost instantly in their behaviors. Helping them navigate even one social challenge successfully makes it ten times more likely they'll begin to come to you for tips and advice on what to do and say to get the social results they want.

Remember — the key is that you must first establish trust and a connection with them by proceeding at their pace, recognizing their interests, and consistently including them.

Technologically Addicted

The technologically addicted pay almost no attention to people who aren't as exciting, loud, and engaging as the characters in their virtual world. They find more pleasure and satisfaction in the world of machines, and even at young ages, have formed attitudes and beliefs about life that run counter to those of almost every camp. These kids need to be engaged in a visceral way — they first need to feel pumped up and excited by you before they'll pay serious attention to you. Then you need to translate this to an enthusiasm for engaging in the world around them — and do so consistently.

Talking to them in a soft, kind voice often goes ignored. Engaging their attention while just sitting in a room is almost impossible. What does work is taking them on a fast-moving walk — while talking loudly and telling them a funny story — then sending them off to quickly do a task you need help with and giving them a time limit to do it in, just like a video game.

One camp counselor actually used technology to get an eleven-year-old boy to connect with his peers. He told this boy to help him put together a photo collage that would show all his fellow campers at their best, doing what they most loved doing. He gave the "techno-geek" camper the job of "interviewing" his cabin mates to learn what they love, then to arrange a photo shoot with them that captured the real feeling of excitement each had in doing it. For example, he couldn't just take a picture of Tony shooting archery. He had to take a picture of Tony in full poise and control, with intensity, hitting a bulls-eye under immense pressure. In the end, the other campers had to arrange a photo shoot that captured him in his full glory. The final photo was one of him standing behind a camera, pointing and directing others to move into perfect position, in full command of his craft. This counselor connected an otherwise disconnected kid.

Socially Isolated

Those who have been socially isolated through no fault of their own tend to feel deeply discouraged. These children often come to doubt themselves and question if, indeed, the opinions and judgments of others may be valid. They tend to be the least likely to speak up and ask for help, since they have found consistently — especially in school — this leads to nothing but cliché words of encouragement or worse: ineffective attempts to pair them up with someone more popular, an act that often backfires as soon as the adult walks away. Imagine what it is like to be seven years old and no one wants to hold your hand while you are playing a game that requires it, or to be thirteen and always the butt of jokes and picked last for a team. It takes a toll.

These kids are often the most painful cases because we can see the good in them, but have little control over the factors that are causing them to feel this way. They don't deserve it, but for countless reasons, the world out there can be cruel and contemporary youth culture makes it easy for those who prey upon kids like them to continually do so.

It is not helpful to feel sorry for them, though. Nor is it helpful to spend time listening to their stories about how badly they get treated and how bad they feel about themselves. I know this runs counter to almost everything any counselor is trained to do, but having built my practice on helping people get over the obstacles of self-image, self-expectations, and identity, what I am offering comes from experience. They aren't helped by talk or talk therapy. They transform their lives through their actions.

These kids need to be continually put in situations where they are challenged to do things they have given up on ever thinking they could do. Your role is to coach, support, and challenge them to continue until they succeed — whatever success may mean. They need to have experiences that show them they can accomplish things through dedicated effort and discipline — qualities that come from inside themselves.

They may need you right there next to them doing the activity, refusing to let them quit, pushing them to face their fear or overcome their challenge. You may be their biggest cheerleader. You may need to be their toughest coach. But you MUST NOT GIVE UP ON THEM OR LET THEM GIVE UP ON THEMSELVES. It doesn't matter that they may hate you in the moment. In the end, you will have helped them realize that they have what it takes to succeed in this world, they have worth, and they are going places with their lives.

For these kids, experiencing tangible success builds the foundation to lead successful, happy lives — not inspirational stories or just kind words alone.

One Final Thought

This article is called "Connecting the Disconnected." It is not called "Connecting with the Disconnected."

Each of the examples I gave you offers different kinds of connecting. Some are connecting with you first, so that you can then teach them how to connect with others. Some are connecting them with one another. The last group is about connecting themselves with what is best and most powerful and valid inside themselves. All these kinds of connecting truly matter.

There is one last group I want to comment on, a group I call the "Smart, Deep, and Sensitive" ones.

These are the kids who are often more mature than their peers. They tend to be more aware, more creatively inclined, and more sensitive to the issues of the world and the lives and troubles of others. They often have more questions going through their minds. When many kids are zoning out listening to their iPods, these kids are zoning in . . . on life's bigger questions . . . on why the world is what it is . . . and often, on how they can lead a meaningful life that makes sure they leave behind a better world than the one they inherited.

You'll recognize them by the thoughtful comments they'll make in group discussions. You'll recognize them by the way they pause to watch the sunset, the hours they'll spend with their drawing books open, or perhaps by the notes they scratch to themselves in their journals. You'll recognize how they move away from typical kid drama, preferring to be alone or with older people.

Life for kids like these can often times be lonely. They are ahead of their age, and in many ways, ahead of their time. Yet there are more and more of them emerging in the world. You may be one of them yourself. You certainly know people who are.

Sometimes for kids like these, the greatest gift you can give them is the opportunity to connect with you, giving them a relationship with someone with whom they can share their ideas, express their concerns, voice their opinions, work through their ideas, or engage in stimulating debate.

You don't need to solve their problems. You just need to support them in their journey to growing into the people who may, ultimately, become the ones who solve all of ours.

Doing so may prove to be one the most important contributions you ever make.

Jeffrey Leiken, M.A., is an internationally recognized expert in training and mentoring youth to lead extraordinary lives and training professionals who work with them to do the same. He's consulted with over 100 summer camps. To learn more about his services, visit www.Leiken.com, or contact Jeff at 415-441- 8218, e-mail Jeff@Leiken.com.

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