In the Trenches: Problem Solving on the Trail

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter


I work for an agency camp that sponsors a challenge hike for adolescent
girls once a year. This is a three-day backpacking hike of moderate difficulty,
but it is well outside the comfort zone of the girls who participate.
We do a lot of preparation, including a meeting with the girls before
the hike to discuss the challenges and to be clear about the commitment.
For example, we tell them that the first day will be hard but that the
camp site is dramatically beautiful and the camaraderie is great. We
ask the girls to consider the commitment to the hike very carefully and
have them sign a commitment letter before they join the group.

Three hours into the first day, one of the girls threw a tantrum, pulled
off her backpack, and refused to go any farther. After about five minutes
of the group trying to decide what to do (we had made it clear that once
we started we would not turn back except for medical or similar reasons),
a male staff member picked up the girl's backpack and said he'd carry
it for her.

I was fuming. Do you think my reaction is justified? What would you
have done?

- Seething in the Sierras

P.S. About an hour later another girl was complaining about being tired
and the girl who had thrown the original tantrum offered to carry her
friend's pack. Go figure!

Dear Sierras,

Your emotional response seems quite legitimate given the scene you describe.
The challenge for you is to respond in a way that is most constructive.
There are two issues here:

  • the meaning of the girl's tantrum and what to do about it.
  • the male staff member who thought he was either being helpful or
    simply "moving things along" by carrying the girl's pack for her.

Let me begin with your staff and work backward.

Assess Staff's Intentions

Obviously, your male staff member thought the purpose of the hike was
to "get there." By contrast, your letter suggests that the hike was set
up as an opportunity for the girls to share and work things out along
the way. What your male staff member did not recognize was that he circumvented
the process (of the girls having to struggle with the tantrum) and, in
so doing, deprived them of a valuable experience in problem solving and

His intervention may have been well intentioned, but he actually undermined
the agreement the girls had made prior to the trip. His action might
have been avoided had he been briefed before the trip on the "latent" value
of the hike (i.e., the group negotiating the issues of its individual
members), followed by some discussion about various situations that might
arise and how to respond to them.

Avoid making the person seem wrong

The fact that you held off confronting the male staff member may have been
prudent. Once he picked up the backpack, confronting him on the spot may
have risked his credibility with the group for the remainder of the hike.
It is better to follow up with him at a later moment when both of you can
be somewhat more reflective of the situation.

When you do confront someone about a situation like the one you describe,
it is most helpful to avoid making that person seem "wrong." Doing so
will only alienate him and lessen the chances of bringing about a more
complete resolution. This means controlling and channelling (not suppressing)
your anger so the other person can hear you. You might do this by trying
to see the positive intent in his actions. You might say:

"Larry, I wanted to talk with you about the incident
with Latesha back on the trail. I know you were probably only trying
to help, but I would rather you and I talked it over before you
picked up her pack. I thought we missed a great opportunity for
the girls to work this out themselves. What do you think?"

Notice four points in the wording, which can be a guide for effective
confrontation in many sensitive situations:

  • the use of "I" statements
  • the fact that my expression of his possible positive intent (". .
    . I know you were probably only trying to
    help . . .") precedes the statement of my request (". . . I would rather
    you and I talked it over before . . .")
  • it is short and allows him to respond without heaping too much on
    him at once
  • the anger is channeled so that the counselor does not feel attacked
    or judged

Revisit the Situation with the Group

Once you can demonstrate the loss of opportunity, you might even suggest
that the two of you revisit the entire situation with the group. The
male staff might begin by "apologizing" for being so "nice," which will
surprise the girls and get their attention. He could continue by saying
how some people might interpret his quick reaction as a sign that he
had stopped believing in that girl's ability to persevere and keep her
commitment. (A great line I use with children and teens is, "I believe
in you even when you stop believing in yourself.") He might also point
out that he realized later how his action sent a message to the group
that they were not capable of handling this dilemma on their own and
that he apologizes for this as well. Such an admission and clarification
by an adult is uncommon in a child's experience and has power and impact.
It also gives the girls their voices back.

In terms of the girl's actions, she was certainly testing both the group
and the adult leaders. By throwing off her pack, she quickly gets to
see whether the adults can back up their commitments. Her tantrum can
also be seen as a statement about herself, as in, "See, this is where
I need help. I sometimes have a hard time living up to my commitments
when the going gets rough." By the way, the fact that she later picked
up the pack of her friend is congruent with what I am saying, namely,
that her actions confirm that fatigue was a false issue.

While annoying and challenging, I see both your camper's tantrum and
the male counselor's rush to "fix" the situation as opportunities for
growth. Indeed, these are the very situations that expand the entire
group's emotional intelligence - bolstering their ability to negotiate,
take ownership, and do "repair work." Developing emotional intelligence
is one specific way that camp can give kids and staff a world of good.

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 2000 January/February
issue of Camping