In the Trenches: Teen Talk

by Bob Ditter

Dear Bob,
Our camp’s enrollment drops for campers ages twelve to thirteen. Because we have had such success attracting elementary school-age children to our program, we have not been too concerned about increasing our teen program numbers. We have always thought teens were more difficult to work with. We have heard, however, that the boom in elementary school-age children will not last long into the new century and that programming for teens is the wave of the future. What can you tell us about this? What should we be thinking about with regard to programming for teens?

— Tentative about Teens

Dear Tentative,

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the next eight to ten years the teen population in the United States will swell from the current 21 million to approximately 29 million — a 38 percent increase in less than a decade. This will coincide with a drop in elementary school-age children. So while many camps in the United States have been enjoying high enrollments due to the current bulge in numbers of younger children, that may change as the demographics change. Camps may find their enrollment dropping in the first decade of the new millennium unless they plan for the changes ahead.

Essential Components of a Viable Teen Program

Having a viable teen program requires more than simply taking your existing program and adding older children. Teens gravitate toward programs that cater to their tastes and sensibilities. There are four factors that a program for adolescents needs in order to be successful.

Offer new experiences
Any teen program must be perceived by adolescents as being substantially different from younger kids’. For returning campers, include favorite traditional activities, while making this camp experience very different from past experiences. Simply put, program options should be ones they have not experienced before.

Make teens’ schedule different
In addition, the day-to-day aspects of the program need to be different from that of younger campers. This includes things like what and when teens eat, certain privileges they have, activities available to them, the level of choice they have in what they do, and their daily routine.

Add an element of risk
Strong teen programs contain elements of risk taking or high adventure, like high ropes course elements, tripping, rappelling, white water rafting, and parasailing. Risk taking is a normal part of growing up and enables adolescents to expand their horizons, realize new strengths, and experience a greater degree of autonomy from their parents.

Most teens engage in some form of risk-taking behavior, though not all of it is healthy. Smoking, drinking, and using illegal drugs are risk-taking behaviors that may have negative consequences. The more we challenge teens by engaging them in highly supervised, healthy risk-taking, the more we are appealing to a natural teen tendency. Providing healthy risk-taking alternatives may also reduce teens’ need to engage in negative high-risk behaviors.

Another program option that satisfies the high risk-taking requirement is any high performance or service piece where teens feel challenged. That could include putting on their own play or performance piece or being involved in a Habitat for Humanity project.

Provide strong role models
A teen program must be staffed with strong role models. Usually this means a young adult who teens see as credible and able to relate to their interests and concerns. Remember that younger children always look up to and learn from older children, and teens are no exception. The difference is that teen leaders need to be more charismatic and able to relate to teens as individuals with their own ideas and sense of self.

Selecting a Program Leader

How difficult teens are to work with may be a matter of opinion and, perhaps, personal style. To be sure, not everyone is suited for working with teens. Adults who have a strong need for control and order will probably not do as well with teens as those who can better tolerate change and disorder. Conversely, adults who are unable to take a clear stand on the rules while maintaining their connection with teen campers will likely run into problems managing a teen program. Being clear, fair, and consistent about the rules is even more important with teens, who may test more vigorously than younger children to see if your program leaders mean business. Adults who take this testing personally and do not see it as part of the work with teens are not suitable candidates for the program.

Teen rebellion is another myth of adolescence. Teens do not rebel against adults so much as they strive to be seen as separate and distinct from adults. They do not want to be seen as little kids or as adults — or even like adults. After all, a key developmental task of adolescence is establishing an identity and sense of self separate from the parent. Teens who rebel may be doing so either because they belong to a peer group that champions rebellion or because their parents are so strong that the only way they can separate is to do it passionately.

Teens Value Adult Connections

Feedback from teen focus groups suggests that teens most admire adults “who truly listen to us and are interested in what we have to say; who respect us and our privacy; who let us be ourselves and don’t try to be like us; and who are fair in their dealings with us.” Teens do not want to sever their connection with adults. They do want to be seen as separate, for who they are; they do want to be respected; and they do want to have contact with adults they admire and perceive as good listeners. In fact, teens crave meaningful authority they can respect. Furthermore, teens do not necessarily respect adults who let them do anything they want.

Young adults who work with teens need help with this concept, as many of them permit teens to just hang out, fearing that taking a stand will result in a rebellion. Don’t be fooled: kids who just hang out get bored and just don’t come back. It seems that teens expect us to understand this in spite of their cries to the contrary.

With the right combination of program choices, understanding, empathy, and adult leaders who have both an interest in teens and a healthy detachment from them, you can create a powerful program that just might change a young person’s life.

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 1999 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.