Research Notes: Because We Weren't Expecting It

by Gwynn Powell

We opened our hymnals to sing America the Beautiful. The organ became silent as we sang the third verse honoring "heroes proved in liberating strife." My niece leaned over and whispered, "Why did the music stop? It makes it sound sad." As we sat down after the hymn, the minister called our attention to a listing of those called up to serve in response to our national emergency, and then we settled in for the sermon. My niece quietly opened her drawing pad and wrote boldly at the top, "9-30-01." As that day was her day to turn seven years old, I anticipated the drawing of happy birthday images . . . but then she whispered, "Was the plane crash in August or September?" Next, she wrote, "9-11-01." The drawing began with two tall buildings; a plane and flames then evolved. Next, she added a person at the top of each building, one crying, the other with an open mouth and wide eyes . . . then the fire trucks and ambulance with stick figures saying, "I'll help you!" I watched as she finished her picture by writing, "A plane hit the twin towers. It was scary." She looked up at me and wrote a note on the bulletin, "Do you like my drawing?" I wrote back, "I think you did an excellent job with your picture, but I wish that it had not happened, so there would not be this kind of picture to draw." She slowly nodded. "I agree," came the note back. "What made it scary for you?" I wrote. Without hesitation, she whispered, "Because we weren't expecting it." She then closed her pad and snuggled up to her daddy for the end of the sermon.

Camp has long been associated with opportunities for dealing with and overcoming fear - the fears of being away from home . . . snakes, spiders, and darkness . . . as well as wondering whether one will fit in or be picked upon. In addition, many programs intentionally create perceived-risk situations through adventure/challenge activities, using these opportunities to process and overcome children's inner fears related to confidence and trust. The current difference is that our fears are of the unknown and the unthinkable, and while we, as adults, don't have the security of knowing answers, the campers will still be seeking feelings of security from us. While we are unsure of answers and outcomes, we can take confident steps to apply the coping principles that help us work with campers to overcome some of the known fears.

  • Camps can provide opportunities to find a safe place to express fears and talk openly.
  • Camps can provide trained staff to manage discussions and create emotionally-safe places.
  • Camps can provide opportunities to build confidence.
  • Camps can provide situations that allow for the development of critical-thinking skills which can lead to increased coping skills.
  • Camps can help people learn and appreciate the similarities and differences of others.

In addition, many of the indicators of stress and worry that staff need to be sensitive to at the current time are not unique to this type of fear of the unknown (NIMH, 2001). They can be similar to signs related to abuse, depression, and self-esteem to which staff are already sensitive. The research surrounding youth reactions to trauma range from examination of direct victimization through post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to indirect exposure through media outlets or conversation. In all of the cases, there is a wide range of reaction for both children and adults (Yehuda, McFarlane, & Shalev, 1998). The complicating factor is that research has shown that children's abilities to recover from an event are influenced by the response of the parent (Bromet, Goldgaber, Carlson, Panina, Golovakha, Gluzman, Gilbert, Lyubsky, and Schwartz, 2000).

Specific guidelines have been developed to address what teachers can expect from students of different age groups through a time of crisis and trauma (Gurwitch, Sivovsky, Schultz, Kees, & Burlingame, 2001) that can be adapted for the summer camp setting. In general, the following is a list of reactions to expect. The key is to discuss previously the multiple ways of handling each issue when and if it is encountered:

  • feelings of fear,
  • worries about it happening again and/or repercussions,
  • changes in behavior,
  • increases in reports of headaches, stomachaches, etc.,
  • re-creations or repeated discussions of the events, sometimes using phrases overheard from adults,
  • easily startled by loud sounds,
  • issues with mistrust of people perceived as different, and
  • discussions of death and dying.

The same authors outline specific guidelines for ways adults can help. Specifically for teachers and parents, the recommendations are as follows:

  • help reinforce feelings of safety and security and know how to react when a child feels scared,
  • provide routine and predictability to the days and weeks,
  • allow time to talk about feelings when disagreements arise,
  • allow time for questions to make sure accurate information has been absorbed (in one case, a child thought that each time he saw a plane crash on television during the days following 9-11-01 that it was another plane, not a video replay),
  • perform or suggest activities that help demonstrate that one person can help,
  • limit the time that adult conversations discussing the events are overheard,
  • remain aware of one's personal reactions, so as to not add to the worries of the children, and
  • increase patience levels to build security.
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An interesting point about these guidelines is that while the modifications differ slightly for age groups, ranging from elementary school to adults, the common threads for each age group are time to recover, avoidance of reminders of the trauma, and soothing activities to restore a sense of trust and connection with others. Summer camp has the potential to serve a natural role in the healing of our children and staff. The challenge now is that there is little research-based evaluation of what types of interventions work best for children and adults (NIMH, 2001). The caution is that each one is dealing with a fear of the unknown in a different manner, so communication, patience, and the building of understanding will be key aspects to be aware of during the summer. We can expect (or predict) that it will be a summer of more of the "unexpected" than usual.

National Institute of Mental Health (2001). Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters. [Electronic Version] Fact Sheet: 01-3518. Retrieved from:
Yehuda, R., McFarlane, A.C. & Shalev, A.Y. (1998). Predicting the development of posttraumatic stress disorder from the acute response to a traumatic event. Biological Psychiatry 44, 1305-13.
Bromet, E.J., Goldgaber, D., Carlson, G., Panina, N., Golovakha, E., Gluzman, S.F., Gilbert, T., Lyubsky, S., & Schwartz, J.E. (2000). Children's well-being 11 years after the Chernobyl catastrophe. Archives of General Psychiatry 57, 563-71.
Gurwitch, R.H., Sivovsky, J.F., Schultz, S., Kees, M., & Burlingame, S. (2001). Reactions and Guideline for Children Following Trauma/Disaster. Retrieved from:

Gwynn Powell is an assistant professor at the University of Georgia teaching recreation and camp administration. She has twelve years of professional year-round experience in camping. Please contact Powell through e-mail, for further information regarding article content or to share research ideas.

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