Teenagers and Risk-Taking at Camp: 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.