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On the Care and Feeding of Adolescents at Camp
You are reading this article because you are working with adolescents at camp this summer and are probably a little bit worried about doing so. Given the ways in which adolescents are portrayed in the media, I am not surprised that you might be a little bit nervous. Adolescents are almost always portrayed as extreme versions of reality or as clumsy, one-dimensional stereotypes. Are all teens oversexed or prudish, jocks or nerds, burnouts or perfectionists? Of course not, but you wouldn’t guess that from watching TV or going to the movies. In this article, we will debunk the myths of adolescents, focus on the facts, and discuss how you can work effectively with today’s young people at camp.
To start, let’s make sure we are on the same page about what we call adolescence — the time of transition between childhood and adulthood — and say that it starts between twelve and thirteen and ends sometime in college. If that sounds unscientific, it is because I pretty much made it up, as adolescence itself is an arbitrary concept. I will be even more unscientific by using “teen” as a substitute for adolescent. (Yes, I know the twenties aren’t the teens. Getting snarky about that is like correcting spelling on Facebook posts. Don’t be that guy. Or girl.) The time period that defines adolescence seems to be getting longer and longer. For example, a century ago, adolescence was the exclusive province of the wealthy, whose disposable income kept their children from having to enter the workforce. Sixty-eight years ago this summer, eighteen- and nineteen-year-old soldiers stormed the beach at Normandy, many of them returning to marry and have children within a few years. Today, adolescence seems to start earlier and end later than it did even a few years ago. But before you join the familiar lament of generations past by casting aspersions on the young (are you really so different?), let’s get to some guidance for working with adolescents this summer.
Don’t Argue with People Who Don’t Care about Winning the Argument, and Set Other Boundaries, Too
If the adolescent period is “about” anything, it is about self-exploration and the desire to define yourself on your own terms, for better or worse. The desire for “self-hood” is what leads to many problems you will face with teen campers and young staff. Most adolescents would rather be true to their individuality than be healthy, right, or compliant. I describe this to my patients’ parents as teens being willing to go “down with the ship.” They will stick with a lie, say things they don’t mean, and take things way too personally just to prove the point that they can. Their primary motivation is to be a separate person, even if being that separate person means doing or saying things that seem irrational at best or crazy at worst. Many of the emotions teens experience are new to them, or at least the intensity and depth of their emotions are new. When you see a teen overreacting, remind yourself about how well you did the first time you confronted intense, adult feelings and conflicts. I doubt you were at your best, any more than I was. Everything is more difficult the first time around, and the more you role model maturity by staying calm, the more you help teens grow up.
This is why you should stop yourself when you find that you are in a battle of wills with a teen camper or young staff member, trying to convince them that your point of view is right or trying to justify an action you have taken that they didn’t like.
You know you are in a battle of wills when you keep trying several ways to make the same argument. Think about it: When you are angry or think something is unfair, is there anything that anyone could say to you that would make you say, “Good point! I see what you are saying now. I just need to make better choices and apply myself, and I will have a better life. I’m so lucky for your guidance!”? I didn’t think so.
Sometimes, we have to accept the fact that someone we like or care about is upset with us. You will have to set any number of boundaries with teens this summer, on everything ranging from discipline to behaving like a mature professional (e.g., staying calm while stressed, not sharing inappropriate details about your private life, etc.), even when part of you doesn’t want to do so. Rule number one about setting boundaries is that the teen doesn’t have to like it. Rule number two is to set boundaries with respect and firmness. Rule number three is to remember rules one and two.
Adolescence Isn’t Easy, but It Isn’t Supposed to Be That Hard Either
Perhaps the most pernicious myth about adolescence is that it’s a time of “storm and stress,” meaning a time that is, by its nature, extremely difficult. This idea holds that it is normal for adolescents to be in a constant state of turmoil, and therefore at relentless risk for extreme emotions and behaviors. In other words, most people think it is normal for adolescence to be unpleasant . . . really unpleasant. If you remember nothing else from this article, please remember that this simply is not true. The vast majority of adolescents are well-adjusted and get through this period just fine. In fact, adolescent campers are probably even more psychologically healthy than the norm, since their parents think they are well enough to go to camp and because the campers themselves (usually) are able to thrive away from home.
So, it is not “normal” to be miserable, constantly freaked out, or to engage in dangerous behavior simply because someone is a teenager. I do not say this to minimize the struggles that many teens face. As a practicing clinician who specializes in working with teens, I see these struggles every day. Instead, I am bringing this to your attention so that you don’t minimize problems, and that you don’t make negative assumptions that color your perceptions of who they are and what they do. It is normal to be, at times, nervous, sad, irritable, or resistant to authority. It is even normal, in the statistical sense of the term, to experiment with alcohol and sexual behavior. Remember, however, that “normal” is not a synonym for easy, healthy, or desirable. It is not normal (again, in the statistical sense of the word) to have mood or anxiety disorders, to get in so much trouble at camp that the camper needs to be sent home, to have relationship or work problems because of substance use, to engage in cutting or other risky behaviors, and so on. Teens experiencing these kinds of problems are good kids who need compassion and help, and probably won’t be able to get this kind of help at camp.
So, because these severe issues are fairly unusual at camp, you will probably not encounter them on a daily basis. You are much more likely to be involved in runof- the-mill problems that are typical of all people. So, if you are worried about one of your teen charges, talk with them like you would talk to anyone else: Express genuine concern, and ask how you can help. Assume that he or she is a healthy, normal person who will be receptive if approached with respect. Unless there is an immediate disciplinary or safety issue, offer to talk with him, and respect his decision if he says no.
If you are not sure what to do, or you don’t think you can handle the problem, get your supervisor or director. Most of all, remember that whatever the issue is, it is most likely to be temporary, and mild in the overall context of the adolescent’s life. The teens you work with need you to see them as regular people trying to find their way, not burgeoning basket cases that need their hand held through every daily crisis.
We All Act Differently If We Think Everyone Is Watching Us
A useful metaphor to keep in mind when working with teens is the “imaginary audience.” As we age, we become increasingly cognizant of our surroundings. We develop a complex awareness of how our actions could be perceived by others around us, and how these perceptions will affect everything from our immediate behavior to social hierarchies and long-term relationships. We are certainly aware of this as adults, but our experience helps us keep the imaginary audience from taking on too much importance. Because they are less experienced, adolescents are quite concerned with how they are playing to the imaginary audience — wanting and sometimes desperate for its perceived approval.
The imaginary audience has implications for how we deal with teens in challenging situations. When you have to discipline or have a serious talk with adolescents, get them away from an actual audience by taking them aside and out of sight or earshot of others. This is referred to as taking them “off stage.” Remember that the imaginary audience is still operating, however, and the desire to save face will remain, which means there are a few strategies specifically for teens that tend to be helpful. I’ll call the first one “praising on the sly.” Little kids love it when adults tell them how well they have done at something. Teens still like praise from adults, but they are less likely to give you the satisfaction of acknowledging that they like it, want it to be more “cerebral” (e.g., rather than cheering, “Great job!”, saying, “I heard you played a great game today”), and tend to respond more when it is more personal, meaning that it takes place more as an individual conversation than in front of a group.
The imaginary audience and the need to save face is also why you should never use humiliating punishments or excessive shaming with teens (or anyone else, for that matter). It is certainly okay, and probably healthy, to say things like, “What you said was really out of line and made him feel terrible.” It is not okay, and is a form of abuse, to engage in name-calling, creative punishments (hazing-type activities that involve having to endure or perform humiliating activities), and lots of yelling and screaming. Not only does this role model cruelty, it will create an identity around being “the one who has to do crazy stuff,” and will lead to hateful emotions in the long run. You have a responsibility both not to do these things yourself and to report any examples that you know of to your directors.
A Summer That Means Something
I gave this article an ironic title because most media accounts of teens seem to treat them as a separate species from the rest of us, which irritates me. As anyone who knows me or is married to me will attest, I have a hard time letting things go when they irritate me, and I want you to help change the way we think about adolescents and adolescence. While working with any group of children at camp is inherently rewarding, there is something special about working with teens. When you work with teens at camp, you get to be present at the initial emergence of their permanent selves, and may even get to have a role in shaping the adult that they will become. As teens experience intense emotions and think abstractly for the fi rst time, they will look to you for guidance, whether or not they realize they are doing so. What you say and what you do, and how you do and say it, is going to matter this summer.
Do’s and Don’ts for Talking with Teens
Ethan D. Schafer, PhD, is a licensed child clinical psychologist and a partner with Spectrum Psychological Associates, a group practice in the Cleveland area. He is on the faculty of the Psychology Department at Case Western Reserve University, and consults with local schools and parenting organizations. He has over twenty-five years of camp experience and consults with summer camps and camp organizations across the country, helping staff work more effectively with campers and each other. He can be reached at (440) 666-3053 or EthanSchafer@yahoo.com.
Originally published in the 2012 May/June Camping Magazine.