When You've Earned Your Campers' Trust, You May Get More Than You Bargained For

You are out on an overnight hiking trip, sitting around the campfire with your campers and co-counselors, enjoying one of those special moments that seem to happen only at camp. A camper sitting next to you says she is dreading going back home at the end of the week. You agree, saying that camp is a pretty awesome place, and adding that you wish the rest of world were more like camp — more like this moment right now. She tells you she’s talking about something else entirely and seems like she’s holding something back. You gently encourage her, saying, “You can trust me. We’ve been so close on this trip!” The camper then confides that she thinks she’s pregnant and is terrified of what her parents will do when she gets home and can’t hide it any more.

The scene I have described is a fictionalized account of an actual conversation shared with me by a counselor at a camp that could very well be just like the one you are working at this summer. It is a scene repeated (with personal variations) at camps all over the country. What I will talk about in this article are some specific tools — things you can do and say — to help with these unexpected moments, followed by some thoughts about when you need to get help from your superiors.


Why Do Kids Tell You?

One of the outcomes of being the great counselor you aspire to be is that the more present and interested and available you are to your campers, the more they will actually come to trust you. And because they trust you, they will often confide in you in ways they may not do with their parents or other adults. Remember, it is much easier for a camper to identify with you as a counselor than it is for them to identify with their parent who is that much older and from an entirely different generational experience than you. As my friend and colleague psychologist Michael Thompson said to me, campers find you “way cooler” than their parents. Campers imagine that you are navigating the wider world of college or work and significant relationships on your own, so they attribute qualities of wisdom and insight to you that you may or may not have! Indeed, many campers will follow advice from a counselor or try something a counselor encourages them to try in a way they never would if that advice or direction were coming from their parent. In addition, whenever people share the kind of experiences you will with your campers at camp, it creates a rapport that is very special.
So now that you have earned this incredible trust with your campers, how do you use it in a way that honors that trust and does no harm to the child who brings a personal issue to you?

Listen without Judgment

When a camper comes to us in confidence and distress, the first impulse for most of us is to “make it better.” We want to fix the problem and make the bad feelings go away. So my first piece of advice is going to be the hardest for you to accept: Not only is it not your job to fix the problem, but you may not be in a position to fix the problem. You don’t have the training, the access to resources, or the place to “make it all better.”
This is a critical point. It is extremely gratifying to have the trust and admiration of young people. When kids look up to us it can make us feel proud, but it can also make us feel obligated to live up to the image they have of us as the wise or savvy “older person.” One of the most difficult emotional lessons I had to learn as a young therapist is that I cannot rescue anyone. We all want to help, but we need to help in ways that are realistic and that don’t offer false promises or mislead kids into thinking we are their saviors.
That does not mean you can’t be extremely helpful. You can. But it will require you to reframe or think about the “problem” differently. In most cases a camper who confides in you is feeling alone with his or her dilemma. The camper is often afraid of being judged, punished, or shamed. The greatest contribution you can make to that camper is to help him or her feel seen and heard. Good listening starts with you staying calm. If you become as distressed or upset as the camper, you won’t be of any help to anyone. A critical factor in maintaining a positive outcome in a conversation about a sensitive issue is for the listener — you — to remain calm in the face of the distress the camper may be experiencing.
The Art and Skill of Validation
Validating someone simply means acknowledging his or her reality. Validation allows the other person to feel he or she is “seen” or “heard.” When we validate another person’s experience (his or her feelings, concerns, or the challenges of his or her situation), we are conveying that we are there for him or her in a way that is helpful and nonjudgmental. Validating a person’s reality does not mean you agree with what that individual did, how he or she got into the situation, or with what he or she feels. It does not mean you approve of his or her situation. It simply means that you are willing to see that person’s pain, fear, or concern and help him or her think it through.
One of the simplest validating statements is, “I can see how . . .” and then fill in what you see. For example, “I can see how frightened you are.” Or, “I can see how worried you are.” Or, “I can see how hard that was for you to tell me. That took a lot of courage on your part.” Responding to a camper in distress with a validating statement such as this can help calm and reassure him or her and can help the camper stay in the conversation.
Radical Acceptance
The most powerful form of validation is something behavioral therapists call radical acceptance. Radical acceptance says that you don’t have to like what is going on, or agree or endorse someone else’s behavior, to understand where he or she is coming from. What radical acceptance and validation in general allow us to do is engage in a conversation that can lead to relief and problem solving. Radical acceptance also helps to reduce or control shame, which is critical because shame has been shown over and over again to impede or even destroy growth and understanding. And it is important here to note the fundamental and significant difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is when a person feels badly about what he or she did (behavior). Shame is when a person feels badly about who he or she is (identity). For example, in the case of the possibly pregnant girl, you may personally believe that pre-marital sex is wrong. Practicing radical acceptance does not prevent you from being helpful to that worried, fearful, overwhelmed child because of your personal feelings or beliefs.
Additional Tools
There are other skills you can bring to bear when a camper reveals a personal issue to you. Here are a few:
  1. Ask good questions. Get the camper to tell you more specifically what it is he or she is thinking or how the camper arrived at his or her conclusions. In the case of the girl who thinks she is pregnant, ask her what (not why, because that can have a connotation that implies judgment) makes her think she is pregnant. How long has she suspected this? While her parents may understandably be upset, what is it that makes her think they won’t help her? Again, you are being a good Sherlock Holmes here simply by getting the camper to tell you more and to reflect on her own situation.
  2. Think out loud, then ask for the camper’s opinion. Kids very often have good ideas about their own situation, but their feelings of fear or anxiety prevent them from thinking clearly. By thinking out loud, you are not positioning yourself as the “expert,” you are simply engaging them in some self-reflection. For example, one thing you could say at this point is, “Maybe the reason you asked me is because you know the right answer for you but just can’t face it or accept it. What do you think?”
  3. Anytime I offer a thought to a child, I always pose it as something I am thinking about, like an idea rather than the answer. I then ask the child what he or she thinks about my idea. Doing this is a great way to lower defensiveness and keep a kid engaged in thinking things through. Kids often do have ideas about what might help them. This approach helps bring out their theories or ideas in a way that they might not otherwise share.
  4. Ask about allies back home. Once you have validated a child’s reality and gotten him or her to reveal more details about the situation or his or her state of mind, you may want to get your camper to talk about adults he or she may trust back home. This might be a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, or older sibling. It might be a coach, teacher, neighbor, or other safe adult the camper can use for support once he or she goes home.
  5. Explain that conflict is normal: We often have two simultaneous but different feelings about the same person or situation. For example, a camper may want the relief of telling you about a problem he or she is having while at the same time be terrified of being judged or rejected. Helping your camper with conflicted feelings can often help him or her think about getting help back home.

When to Get Help

A camper may try to swear you to secrecy. “If I tell you something, will you promise not to tell anyone?” While this sounds like a reasonable request, it can set up a problem for you later if you discover that the secret is not one you can keep. I simply tell kids I will never use what they tell me in a way that will hurt them. They may disagree or protest if I realize I need to get help, but that is the risk I must take. Some issues require you to seek help from your superiors at camp even if the camper protests. A short list of these follows:
  1. When a camper discloses that he or she is engaging in self-harm (cutting, for example, or binging and purging — eating in an unhealthful way).
  2. When a camper says he feels like killing himself. The assessment of suicide risk is an extremely skillful and nuanced process. Even many trained and experienced health professionals get it wrong. As a counselor you are not in a position to assume that risk. Even if a camper might be angry with you for getting help, it is the chance you must take for the sake of the camper’s safety. If you get it wrong you will never forgive yourself.
  3. When a camper makes a disclosure to you of being or having been physically or sexually hurt by someone else, whether that someone else is an adult or another kid.
  4. When a camper reveals a potentially serious medical or health issue, such as the possibility of being pregnant or having physical symptoms she has not shared with another adult.

Handling Special Cases

So if a camper makes a disclosure to you that fits one of the preceding categories, what do you do? Here is step-by-step language you can use in responding:
  1. “I’m glad you told me. That was the right thing to do.”
  2. “I’m also glad you trust me enough that you could tell me.”
  3. “I admire the courage you showed by telling me.”
  4. “Who else have you told?” (One of the reasons you ask this question is to ascertain whether there are other campers out there who may have this knowledge whom you may need to check with because of the stress it may be causing them. In other words, you may need to start thinking about how to contain this news so it doesn’t upset other campers.)
  5. “What that person did/is doing/has done is wrong. None of this is your fault in any way.”
  6. “No one should be treated this way. No one deserves to have something like this happen to him or her.”
  7. “I think the reason you told me is that you don’t want to be alone with this anymore.”
  8. “You have the right to be protected from things like this, and it is the job of adults to make sure you get that protection.”
  9. “What kind of a friend would I be if I just sat here with this information and didn’t get you help? I know you are scared and I get that. I also know you can get help. So even though you might be angry with me, I know you deserve to get that help, and I’ll have to take that risk.”
Being an effective counselor means being willing to withstand the anger or upset of a camper in order to do the right thing, which is to get that camper help. By the way, in most states in the United States and Canada, it is the law that you as a child caretaker report abuse and get the child help.
Camp is an amazing opportunity for you to share both exhilarating experiences and intimate moments with kids. For their part, the campers you serve are counting on you to be there for them in ways that are realistic and helpful rather than in ways that make a promise you can’t keep. As I have often said, being a camp counselor is for “big people” only. Have a great summer!
Photocourtesy of Camp Akita, Logan, Ohio.
Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy.