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 th