In the Trenches: Scenes from Camp

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter

June and July are travel months for me. Twenty days each month I can
be found in a camp somewhere in the United States listening to the tales
of counselors dealing valiantly with challenging camper behavior. I have
chosen to share a couple of episodes from last summer with the hope that
you, intrepid reader, will find some elements of them familiar and therefore
useful. The names of the campers and some of the details of their situations
have been changed to protect their privacy.

Gaining Respect

Damian is a thirteen-year-old boy in his first year at a coed resident
camp which has one eight-week session. He is diagnosed with Tourette's
syndrome, which for Damian manifests itself as eye and facial tics (erratic,
involuntary sudden movements) and some vocal tics, mostly growling or
clearing his throat or sniffing the air through his nose. These behaviors
often increase in frequency, intensity, and duration when Damian is anxious
or stressed about something, or when he is in a new situation. While
Damian has gotten teased in school for some of his behavior, which is
largely beyond his control, the boys at camp do not tease him for anything
related to his tics. Once they had a clear understanding of his condition
and the fact that it was not something he could easily control — an
explanation that was given to his cabin group in his presence on the
first day of camp — they "cut him a lot of slack" and
never bothered him about it.

What they did bother him about was his bragging. Once, while preparing
to play baseball with his group, as the boys were lobbying for what field
position they wanted to play, Damian spoke forcefully and convincingly
about why he should be allowed to pitch. He claimed that he had had a
lot of experience and was the best they'd ever seen. After a miserable
outing, it came out that he'd never pitched before in his life!
The boys on his team were furious with him. Had he not been so vocal
about his prowess as a pitcher, they wouldn't have been so let
down by either his performance (which cost them the game) or the fact
that this was his first attempt at it. Had this been an isolated incident,
one could see how Damian might have just wanted to try something he'd
never done before (camp after all is a great place to try new things).
For Damian, however, bragging was a sport in itself.

Damian bragged about places he had traveled to, stars he had met, achievements
he had accumulated, and skills he had perfected — all of which
were either grossly exaggerated or wholly untrue. It got to the point
that whatever he said, the other boys, because they could never trust
him, would ridicule him or react with hostility. They were so offended
by what they considered lies that they began to tease him mercilessly.
During times like this Damian would lash out physically at his tormentors
who in turn felt that they were justified in their reactions because
his claims were so outrageous. Of course, their hostility did nothing
to sway Damian from his habit, but only brought out his aggression. You
and I might think, hmmm, here's a kid who, given what he's
been through, is understandably insecure about himself and therefore
tries to "build himself up" by embellishing things about
himself. We might even be right. The question is, as it always is at
camp, what can be done about it?

It was decided that I would talk with Damian myself. After securing permission
from his parents to meet with him one-on-one, I sat down with him. I
made it clear that I knew about Tourette's — that I had seen
several guys in my practice who had had it — and then also told
him that I knew his camp friends had been giving him a hard time. I asked
him to describe what it was they had been doing that had been upsetting
him so and just listened for a while. I then asked him if he had any
idea what it was that made the other boys taunt him as they did. I didn't
expect him to give me an answer that accounted for his part of the problem
and he didn't. This, of course, was all just "setting the
table." I was now ready to serve up the main course.

"So, Damian," I started, "I can see you are truly bothered
by what the other boys sometimes do — in fact, it has gotten you
so riled up that you've been in danger of getting into trouble
over it. I don't think you want that to happen. In fact, I think
you'd like the boys to treat you differently or you wouldn't
be here talking to me." He agreed.

"So, let me ask you . . . if there was one thing you could do to
change things, would you be willing to do it?"

"Sure," he said. "But, I guess it depends on what it

"Good answer!" I replied. "How about this," I
continued. "How about if before you do or say something to the
other boys, you stop first and ask yourself one question. Would you be
willing to try that?"

"Um, I guess so. What's the question?" he asked.

"Will what you are about to do or say make the other boys respect
you more, or respect you less. For example, will lashing out at them
make them respect you more, or will it make them respect you less. I
don't want you to answer me now; I just want you to ask yourself
that question each and every time you go to do or say something in front
of the other boys.

"See, I think what you really want is for the boys to respect you.
I think you want it so badly that you've sometimes exaggerated
things you've said to try to get it. And I have a hunch you can
get it, but only if you ask yourself that question first. For example,
if you keep playing or keep working at something even though you are
feeling hurt or angry, would that make the other boys respect you more,
or respect you less?"

Had Damian been eleven years old and not thirteen, this approach might
not have worked. Had he not been in pain, it most likely wouldn't
have worked. Had respect not been a key issue for him (for all boys his
age), I would have been off the mark. But he was thirteen; he was in
pain; he was hungry for the other boys to respect him; and I was able
to talk to him in a way that was at once direct, but respectful. And
it worked. In fact, he was able to make quite a dramatic turn-around.
The camp director has the post camp letter from his grateful mother to
prove it. Just food for thought!

One Thing at a Time

Marissa is an eight-year-old, first-time camper who is driving her counselors
crazy. It's her specialty. "We tell her three things to do," one
counselor tells me, "like, 'put on your shoes, make your
bed, and put your dirty laundry in your laundry bag.' She smiles
and agrees, but within seconds she's off doing something else.
I feel like calling her parents and saying, 'You have the most
ADD kid I've ever seen!'"

I momentarily stifled my impulse to point out that . . .

  1. they were not qualified to make that judgment and hand
    her a diagnosis; and
  2. that her distractibility could just as easily been because of a
    number of things, including immaturity, adjusting to the entirely new
    and very stimulating situation of suddenly having eight or more "sisters" to
    share a room with (the season-long pajama party!) or not having her
    doting parents do everything for her (like lay out her clothes, pick
    up her things, and so on).

But I checked myself.

"Let's try something else," I said in quietly confident
way. "Something simple and easy to do that we can build on. I'd
like you both to follow exactly the same format for a couple of days
and then we'll see about tweaking it.

"First, tell her one thing and only one thing to do, like, 'put
on your shoes.' Have her repeat that one thing back to you. Send
her off to do it while you attend to other things, but first, instruct
her to come back to you and tell you when she's finished that one
thing. Praise her when she comes back and announces that she's
done her one thing. Don't go overboard; a simple, 'Good job,
Marissa! That's great!' will suffice. Then, give her a second
thing to do with the same instructions. Then a third, and so on. One
direction at a time! It may be somewhat tedious for you both at first,
but . . .

  1. you can 'tag team' her so one of you isn't
    always the one having to work with her;
  2. you can continue to go about your business while she's doing
    her one thing;
  3. the praise she will get is like built-in sugar — she'll
    come back for more; and
  4. after a couple of days, you can start experimenting with giving
    her two things to do in a row and save your praise for when she's reported
    back to you that she's done both things."

Had Marissa been twelve or thirteen, this would not have worked. Had
she not been eager to feel successful and win the approval of her counselors — something
generally true of younger campers — it might not have worked. But
it did work, which might mean we've discovered a "cure" for
ADD after all!

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing
in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for
and can be reached via e-mail at
or by fax at 617-572-3373. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by
American Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 2006 March/April
issue of Camping Magazine.