Teenagers and Risk-taking at Camp: An Interview with Lynn Ponton, M.D.

An Interview with Lynn Ponton, M.D.

by Ann Woods

Dr. Lynn Ponton, one of the keynote speakers at the American Camping Association
Conference in Washington, D.C., is uniquely qualified to speak to us because
of her professional and personal background. Dr. Ponton, a psychiatrist
at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco, is head
psychiatrist at the UCSF adolescent services clinic. As an expert on troubled
teens, she has been interviewed by the New York Times, Newsweek, and Time
Magazine and has appeared on local and national television. She has had
numerous speaking engagements from high school parents' clubs to ACA regional
conferences. Equally important, she is the mother of two teenage daughters
who have given her a parent's perspective into the "teen scene."
Dr. Ponton recognizes the value of the summer camp experience. For many
years, her two daughters participated in both day camp and resident camp.

In an interview with Camping Magazine, Dr. Ponton shares her perspective
on the risk-taking behaviors of adolescents, drawing from her experience
as a renowned specialist in adolescent psychiatry.

Can you define risk-taking in teens?

Adolescence is a time when young people experiment with many aspects of
life - testing how things fit together and using this process to define
and shape how they think and how they fit into the world. This is a time
when teens are learning how to become their "own person." Teens
are involved in risk-taking that is not always harmful. Frequently, risk-taking
in teens is a normal, healthy, developmental behavior for adolescents.

Unhealthy risk-taking is what most parents and camp professionals are more
familiar with, but there are many healthy risks that teens can and do take,
especially at camp. Unhealthy, negative risk-taking involves activities
that are dangerous to the health and safety of teens such as drinking, taking
drugs, unsafe sexual activity, body mutilation, and restrictive eating.
Healthy risk-taking can include participation in activities like camp, sports,
volunteer activities, or running for school office.

Why does unhealthy risk-taking seem so prevalent in our
culture, and why are we seeing so much of it at camp?

Adolescents are reaching sexual maturity at an earlier age than they did
ten years ago. Our puritan culture often inhibits us from thoroughly educating
our adolescents or at times from even allowing frank and open discussion
on sex education, the human body, and the kinds of choices that are open
to young teens today. At the same time, the media sends many images of provocative
sexual behavior and violence to our teens. Camp is a place where kids feel
safe and secure, away from home and their parents - that is why camp professionals
see so much more risk-taking in older campers. Campers feel safe to act
out their fantasies at camp, and that can be both positive and negative.

What are the signs of negative risk-taking that we might
see at camp?

Negative risk-taking comes in clusters. It is not just one isolated incident.
Look for a series of actions that a camper is taking that could or would
be dangerous to his/her health. Negative risk-taking that you may see at
camp can include alcohol abuse, eating disorders - either anorexia or bulimia,
body mutilations, sexual promiscuity, bullying and violence towards another
camper, or taking drugs.

What would you suggest a staff member do when he/she suspects
a camper is engaged in negative risk-taking?

Whenever a counselor is concerned that a camper is behaving in a way that
is dangerous to his/her health and welfare, the counselor should first talk
with the appropriate staff member. That person may be his/her immediate
supervisor, the head counselor, or perhaps a resource staff member, or the
camp director. The counselor and the administrator should discuss the situation
and come up with an agreed upon strategy for working with the camper. They
should follow the guidelines the camp has established in both formulating
and implementing the strategy. Staff training should include educating your
staff on serious negative risk-taking and the steps to take to deal with
a camper who is exhibiting unhealthy or dangerous behavior.

I believe that part of the strategy in dealing with a camper in this situation
is to openly talk with that child or teen about the risk-taking behavior
- to help him/her evaluate the situation and to consider other more positive
choices. Depending upon the situation, the camp may want to bring in more
expert assistance to work effectively with the camper.

How important is the camp staff in helping campers assess
their choices in risk-taking?

This is where camps have a real advantage. Campers of all ages, especially
teens, consider the camp staff to be much "cooler" than their
parents. Positive behaviors like making a new friend, taking a part in a
zany skit, and trying out the new ropes course can be modeled by the adult
staff. Teens strongly identify with the young adults who are their counselors
and instructors at camp. They will mimic their behaviors. So, it is very
important for camp directors to be aware of these phenomena and to select
staff with this in mind. It is also important that staff receive training
both at staff orientation and during camp on the strong influence their
behavior has on campers. Campers become close to their counselors, and for
this reason, a camper may disclose information about negative or abusive
behavior to him/her. The counselor needs to know the appropriate response.
A young staff member who confides details of his/her own experimenting with
drugs, sex, or other risk-taking behaviors is acting inappropriately both
as a counselor and role model. A counselor who has been well trained in
how to deal with a "disclosure" can respond in a way that is very
helpful to the camper.

Why is camp such a good place for positive risk-taking?

Personally speaking, I have always looked at summer as a time to give my
own girls new opportunities, and camp is a perfect place for new adventures
where they can "stretch" themselves. Camp is best known for the
physical healthy risk-taking like learning a new skill such as canoeing
or accomplishing a goal like going on a ten-day backpacking trip. But there
are many other ways camp offers new opportunities to campers. There is the
social risk-taking involved in going to camp where a camper separates from
his/her family, goes to a new place, finds new friends, and becomes a part
of a new community. There is sexual risk-taking when a camper may become
involved in a romance for the first time at camp. Camp also offers what
I call intellectual risk-taking because of the spiritual aspects of living
in the outdoors. Experimenting with new behaviors and new thinking, which
a new experience like camp helps to promote, can stimulate more complex
thinking, increase confidence, and help develop a young person's ability
to assess and undertake risks in the future.

Will teens participate in more or less risk-taking at camps
because of the events of September 11?

Typically, what happens with teen risk-taking after a disaster is that
there is less risk-taking for a few months directly following the event.
However, six to twelve months later, when these buried feelings begin to
surface, teen risk-taking increases. Right about the time that camps will
be in session is the time that teen campers will be dealing with strong
feelings about the September 11 tragedy. I think it will be helpful to have
an all-inclusive activity for the campers so they feel a part of the healing
process and have something definite to do that can begin to bring closure
for them. Potential activities could include a special gathering or ritual
at campfire where campers can talk about their dreams for a better world,
an evening called a "Night to Remember" where campers and staff
have particular roles to play, or perhaps a hike to a unique and beautiful
spot at camp with time devoted for everyone to express their feelings.

Originally published in the 2002 January/February
issue of Camping Magazine.

Top of