Eleven Tips to Build Resilience with Campers

Joel D. Haber, PhD

Recent events like Hurricane Sandy and the school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary hit us hard. Across the country, we became consumed by news reports of these events and wondered how the lives of those affected would ever go on. The good news, if we can find any from these tragedies, is that people do fi nd a way to move on. However, life is more than dealing with tragedy — it is about facing challenges of all types, and learning how to deal with them builds resilience. Facing challenges successfully paves the way in our brain for new pathways as we face new challenges. You, as camp staff, can help your campers and yourselves build resilience to last a lifetime.

Children are facing new challenges like never before. This new generation of kids is referred to as the “teacup generation” (Volpitta & Haber, 2012). Kids are so fragile that they shatter like teacups when something goes wrong. The terms “helicopter parents,” “cockpit parents,” and “attachment parents” refer to parents who are so overly involved with their children that they continually save their children from any discomfort. This has led to children who don’t know how to manage frustration, face adversity, or solve problems. They grow up with little resilience because they miss what they need most: adults who let them fi nd ways to overcome their own challenges.

Definition of Resilience

Resilience has been defined in the past as the ability to respond positively to adverse situations such as natural disasters, war, or crippling accidents (Volpitta &Haber, 2012). The people who survive are seen as resilient, while the ones who are emotionally destroyed are not. The definition of resilience has to be broader to include a person’s ability to cope with any stress, challenge, or adversity. This expanded definition provides an opportunity for summer camp. Teaching youth to develop the skill sets they need to face any new challenge or difficulty through their everyday interactions can become transformative. Camps are the place to build and foster resilience because we encourage campers to take challenges in so many healthy ways.

Resilience is a process that we can teach. There are certain characteristics that help our campers develop resilience (Ginsburg, 2011). Kenneth Ginsburg, a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, labels his model as the Seven Cs — competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping, and control. Although his model doesn’t necessarily tell us how to create these skills, my goal is to help you see your role in developing the tools campers need for resilience building.

Why Camp Is the Best Place for Resilience Building

Research has shown us that there are four protective factors (Levine, 2012) for youth that help them grow and build resilience:

  1. Unstructured play — camps are ideal places for unstructured play as schools have pushed academic rigor to new, stressful levels.
  2. Limited performance pressure — unlike school, camps take away stress, allowing kids to thrive without pressure to get to the top of their game.
  3. Time to explore — the time for exploration is diminishing as youth at earlier ages are using technology as their “immediate gratification” strategy without developing skills they need for creativity and exploration.
  4. Time to reflect and interact — in our immediate-gratification world, there is less time for personal reflection, thinking, and face-to-face social skill development.

The bottom line: Camp offers what youth need to build resilience as they are facing fewer opportunities to get this at home or school.

Brain Development

In very simplistic terms, an infant brain is like a jungle at birth. Infants’ experiences with caretakers and the world around them help clear a massive jungle of neurons to faster pathways (like a highway cutting through a forest) as experience and new skills are acquired. As we use our brain to create pathways to face challenges, our brain becomes more adept to face new challenges. If we don’t allow kids to face challenges on their own, their brains are less likely to have the pathways to face challenges successfully.

As camp staff, you can learn resilience along with your campers. Here are eleven key tips to help you and your campers develop the resilience we all need to be successful in life.

1. The Benefits of Failure

Failure is crucial to developing resilience skills. What have you learned from screwing up? Did it motivate you to work harder — to find a different way to succeed or try something new altogether? Failure provides us with opportunities for realistic evaluations of who we are. Can we encourage a camper who has been unsuccessful to continue to try to meet a challenge? Campers need to know that life doesn’t end when we fail. Failure is necessary because it forces our brain to test out other ways to face a challenge and creates new brain problem-solving pathways. True competence and self-esteem develop when we face difficult challenges and realize we can find a way to get through them.

2. Encourage Effort and Improvement

Summer camp isn’t always about winning. For some, winning in competitive games is important. However, resilience models focus on encouraging effort to help kids learn to tough things out and try new experiences. If you make effort your goal rather than winning, campers won’t feel like losers or giving up when they face adversity.

3. Do All Kids Deserve Trophies?

Can you label your strengths and weaknesses clearly? All of us need to know this to see who we really are so we don’t crack when things don’t go our way. Campers need “realistic” pictures of their strengths and weaknesses so they can develop truer pictures of themselves based on fact. For example, if children are given trophies for a lack of effort or poor skills, it helps them develop a sense of narcissism. That means that kids have an inflated sense of who they are, which creates anxiety for them because they know they are not great at everything. They don’t have to be and neither do you. Be great at what you love — don’t feel you have to be great at everything.

4. Instant Gratification Does Not Build Frustration Tolerance or Equal Accomplishment

Accomplishment and true self-esteem come from hard work and effort. It is acceptable to allow ourselves and campers the opportunity to experience frustration. We all need to learn skills to keep trying or we learn to quit easily, feel unmotivated when we experience frustration, and get bored easily. We need to encourage our campers to face tough challenges and to work hard toward a goal!

5. True Self-Esteem and Confidence

Where does confidence come from? I bet it comes from facing difficulty and finding a way to succeed. Think back to anything you felt proud of accomplishing. It probably took a long time to master, and you can probably remember how great it felt when you finally found a way to work it out. That is true confidence building. Use your own experiences to talk to your campers when they trip and fall. Your stories will help them find a way to keep going because they look up to you.

6. Is Every Camper a “Superstar”?

What makes you special and unique? Every camper is special because he or she has unique traits, experiences, quirks, interests, and talents just like you. Our role as camp staff is to help our campers pursue their passions and be excited by these pursuits. What does your camper really love to do? All children can be their own superstars if we help them find tangible ways to feel good about themselves. We need to encourage our campers to evaluate success for themselves — not based on our ideas of what is good for them or their parents’ ideas of what is good for them.

7. Points of Contact

Camp is the perfect place to help your campers develop meaningful connections that can last a lifetime. I hear stories from campers who talk about their “real” friends in camp. Campers need two or three other campers who they can trust to know them, have their back, and like them for who they are. They also need to find two or three adults who they can feel safe with at camp. Developing these powerful points of contact with meaningful peers and adults is the key to a great summer experience for your campers and for you because they create a sense of belonging and a connection to the camp!

8. Teaching Inclusive and Not Exclusive Behavior

What kind of leader are you? Can you lead by role modeling inclusion and friendship to all camp staff, or will you use exclusion, gossiping, and bullying? Campers will follow your lead! Give campers permission and encouragement to show positive leadership toward others by your own example. If we role model caring and empathetic behavior, we help our campers understand that the world is not a narcissistic place where “I” matters more than the community. Children will feel good when they stand up to do what is right and make a contribution to include others; they will feel rewarded for reaching out to be inclusive. Being helpful to others actually increases positive neurotransmitters in the brain, which has a cumulative effect for resilience.

9. Boredom, Frustration, Disappointment, and Patience

Technology has enabled us to have a quick fix for boredom. Children turn on screens and avoid an opportunity to feel boredom, disappointment, or frustration. Maybe you do the same! Our brain needs to learn problem-solving strategies when we face these feelings. Can you help your campers sit around and talk with each other and staff when they face boredom? Can you help them problem solve creative ways to get through these feelings and have fun? Helping them find alternatives to screens will help their brain find a new pathway through future boredom, frustration, and disappointment, and it will help them develop patience.

10. Are You Ethical and Fair?

How ethical and fair are you? Are you able to go into the dining hall and wait your turn patiently without jumping ahead? Will you wait and not take a second helping before others get their first serving? Can you show your campers that we are part of a community? Following rules is essential to living in a community. If we practice living by the rules we set in our bunk and camp community and help our campers follow this, they learn respect for others and their community.

11. Encourage Positive Thinking and Optimism

Having resilience means you are able to find a sliver of something positive even when going through the roughest times. You may be experiencing a painful event, but you try to find a way for this experience to bring you hope for a better day or gratitude for what you have. Some people laugh or joke when they think of how ridiculously hard an experience has been, or they realize it could have been even worse. Finding a way to see a rough period as a challenge to overcome is a thought strategy that teaches resilience (Frederickson, 2009). These eleven tips can help you and teach your campers how to develop the resilience they need to be successful in life.

References

Frederickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Top-notch research reveals the 3-to-1 ratio that will change your life. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press. Ginsburg, K. (2011). A parent’s guide to building resilience in children and teens: Giving your child roots and wings. American Academy of Pediatrics.
Levine, M. (2012). Teach your children well: Parenting for authentic success. New York, NY: Harper.
Volpitta, D. & Haber, J. (2012). The resilience formula: A guide to proactive, not reactive parenting. New York, NY: Widener Publishers.

Joel Haber, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and international speaker on resilience and bully prevention. He is a consultant to ACA and trains summer camp staff each year. Dr. Haber was recently awarded two speaker grants from the U.S. State Department to help both South Korea and Japan reduce bullying problems and build resilience skills for their youth.

Originally published in the 2014 May/June Camping Magazine

Photo courtesy of Gold Arrow Camp, Lakeshore, California

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