We've all been there! You're excited about your new job and all goes well for the first few days (maybe weeks). Everything is new and exciting. Adrenaline helps smooth any fears or irritations. But now it's getting real. Your coworkers are starting to get on your nerves. Your campers are driving you crazy; sure, some are adorable, but others are simply annoying and needy. "What am I going to do?" you wonder. You know you need to be relaxed and confident to help others. If you're really honest with yourself, you know it boils down to the fact that you're tired. You're never your best self when you're tired. None of us are! You need to take a hard look in the mirror and sort out what you can control, what you can change, and when you need to ask for help.

Outlined here are proactive steps to minimize burnout, warning signs that you are not attending to self-care, and practical advice for communicating with your supervisor so you can be your best for your camp family. Here we go!

How to Be Me First without Being Self-Centered or Selfish

Setting boundaries is difficult, especially at camp. We work, live, eat, and sleep with all the same people. It's easy to get caught up sitting on the couch at 11:00 p.m. chatting with camp friends and thinking about going to sleep, but not wanting to get up because you love your conversations and spending time together. As wonderful as those friendships are, staying up until close to midnight each night doesn't help you serve your campers well, especially with an early wake-up time the next morning!

When you travel on a plane, the flight attendants always repeat that you have to put on your oxygen mask first, before helping anyone else with theirs. This instruction seems almost paradoxical. If there is an emergency event critical enough for the oxygen masks to be needed, why would you not protect the people you are traveling with first? If you pass out before you can get their masks on because you didn't put on yours first, no one survives. Taking care of other people, especially children, means taking care of yourself. In caregiver professions, like that of camp counselor, there is often the assumption that the best thing to offer is your entire self, forsaking personal needs for the good of others. Taking care of yourself and your own needs by setting boundaries is not selfish, but a conscious investment toward the well-being of the campers in your care. As staff, you must make choices about what you eat, drink, and how much sleep you need. We all have different tolerance levels for different situations, so using other people as the metric for what is normal is not helpful.

You Know You Best

At camp, you generally can't rely on electronic devices to remind you about events or when to do something. So, you need to learn to listen to your internal alarm system and to pay attention to those little reminders from your body that you need a break. You know yourself better than anyone else, so you can pace yourself and watch for warning signs.

Following are some guiding questions to build into your day to help you stay rested, relaxed, and focused. These questions can be answered internally or with a friend or group:

  1. What parts of the day do I feel the most grouchy or annoyed?
  2. Have I eaten? How much water did I drink? Did I eat something fulfilling, like a piece of fruit or other healthy snack?
  3. When did I go to sleep last night? When do I have to wake up? Am I getting eight to ten hours of sleep at night?
  4. Am I getting some alone time each day?
  5. Am I making time for important routines? For example: How do I feel when I have time to take a shower, dress, and eat/drink coffee versus just jumping out of bed and throwing on clothes?

Asking yourself or discussing these sorts of questions is the first step in a larger process of self-assessment and evaluation. This process requires a degree of honesty and authenticity, which can take some time to cultivate, especially when you may be used to just powering through exhaustion or frustration instead of assessing the situation. In thinking about where your heart, head, and body are during the day today, you are evaluating your present circumstances to potentially make tomorrow better. For your head: What are you thinking about? What is stuck in your brain today? For your heart: What made you smile today? What made your heart heavy, or what hurt your feelings? In reference to your body, body-scanning is a meditative practice used to quickly scan your body and see how you feel. Starting at your head or your feet, try to focus in on each part of your body in succession — does your head hurt? How do your feet feel? Do you have a sunburn or bug bites? Do you need to go to the nurse on your break? By posing these questions to yourself, you are taking an active role in caring for yourself and your needs, so you can take better care of your campers.

Motivation for Being Your Best Self

Campers model behavior, and if you want them to react calmly to challenging situations, you need to do the same. This is the main motivation behind putting yourself first and taking care of your needs while at camp, because it creates a culture of self-assessment and evaluation that helps everyone — campers and staff members alike. Regularly engaging in this sort of self-assessment to serve your campers better will identify you as a leader and offer real-life demonstrations of self-care to your campers who are learning emotional regulation at camp. By responding to tense or difficult situations with calmness, you show your campers how to interact with each other in healthy ways. There is also the added benefit of keeping your sanity and making it through the summer!

Communicating with Your Supervisor

In a supervisory role at camp, finding the balance between dealing with staff issues and remaining firmly behind the program can be difficult. You can help your supervisor by being honest about how you are doing and proactive in your communication. This openness and honesty will invite conversation and can build and maintain healthy relationships. You will be more likely to feel comfortable sharing a situation before it becomes an emergency or a larger problem. If doing so isn't already part of the system at your camp, consider checking in with your supervisor once a week, just a quick, five-minute conversation without campers to let them know how you're doing. Pick the right moment. Don't pull away from your responsibilities. Ask for feedback, but not every time. Before beginning your conversation, ask if it is a good time to talk, and if it is not, when would be a good time. Remember, the goal is to keep the communication flowing and not wait until something is a big problem. Share your successes and your challenges. This relationship will strengthen the foundation of camp.

The Bottom Line

Camp is a better place when you are in a good place. You have the ability to stay on track if you are willing to pay attention to what your head, heart, and body are telling you and to communicate. No one can see into your mind, so only you get the first warning signs of trouble. Speak up and take proactive steps to make it a great summer, all summer!

Discussion Questions

  1. What do I know about myself? What helps me feel calm? What rattles my confidence?
  2. How can I communicate with my peers so they feel comfortable talking to me when they start to feel burnout?
  3. What can I say to my supervisor to start building a connection so I feel comfortable talking to him/her when something tough comes up inthe future?


Talk it Out

Here are some conversation scenarios that point out good communication practices:

Talking to a Peer

  • You: Hey, do you have a minute?
  • Peer: Sure, what's up?
  • You: I think I'm feeling burned out. I just feel like I need help and thought you could help me.
  • Peer: Thanks for trusting me. I remember in staff training they said it would happen to all of us at some point and we should speak up. Let's go talk to our supervisor. I'll go with you.
  • Key points: You may be on either side of the conversation; listen, go with them up the supervisor chain.

Saying No to  Peer

  • Friend: I know curfew is in a few minutes, but let's finish this conversation/ game/activity/etc.
  • You: This has been fun! I want to stay, but I know myself well enough to know that if I don't get enough sleep, tomorrow will be miserable and it will snowball. Let's meet again tomorrow evening.
  • Key points: Acknowledge the fun, state your resolve, and make future plans.

Talking to a Supervisor

  • Supervisor: You are doing a nice job, so I want your help planning the next large group event.
  • You: Wow, thanks for the compliment! I've been unsure about how you felt I was doing, so it's nice to hear the positive feedback. I feel like I'm just barely covering all my responsibilities, so I'm afraid if I say yes to helping you, my work will suffer. Can I help brainstorm other ways to accomplish the job?
  • Key points: Acknowledge the compliment, express the underlying concern, and be part of the alternative solution.

Talking with Yourself

  • Internal voice of doubt: I'm not sure if I can cope with this situation for one more second!
  • Internal voice of confidence: I can do this! I've been trained! I have people I can talk to for support.
  • Key points: Listen to yourself, raise the counterpoint, and check the reality with others.


Katie "Crash" Thurson is a senior at New College of Florida and has worked at camp for the past seven summers. She currently serves as the assistant camp director at Happy Acres Ranch in Jacksonville, Florida.

Gwynn M. Powell, PhD, is on the faculty in Park, Recreation, and Tourism Management at Clemson University, has two decades of camp experience in the USA, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey, and serves on the Board of Directors for the International Camping Fellowship.

Lisa Olsen, MS, is a doctoral candidate in Park, Recreation, and Tourism Management at Clemson University. Her research interests include camp and youth development.

J. Joy James, PhD, has been involved in teaching, resident camps and environmental education for over 20 years. Currently, she teaches recreation management as a faculty member at Appalachian State University.

Photo courtesy of River Valley Ranch (RVR), Manchester, Maryland.