In the middle of last summer, we received an update from our camp insurance agent about one of the biggest challenges facing camps in 2018 — camper and staff mental health issues. At that point in the season, we already had four teenage campers who had discussed suicidal thoughts with their counselors. We'd been conferring with parents, therapists, and social workers at the local hospital to ensure the campers' safety, and ultimately, we were able to navigate each situation successfully. These incidents, however, highlight an alarming and uncomfortable trend. Over my past three decades at camp, we occasionally had one camper struggle with severe depression, but never had we encountered so many campers facing this same issue over one summer.
As camp professionals, we have front row seats to the challenges facing children and teens, including the increase in youth depression, anxiety, and suicide. By default, we find ourselves in the role of advisor and supporter to the campers' parents, many of whom are struggling with how to address their children's challenges. Although we don't all need to become parenting experts, we do need to understand the challenges parents face and how to best support and direct them to appropriate resources when the campers in our care need help.
Does every camp professional need to know how to do a psychological assessment on youth who express suicidal tendencies? No.
Do we all need to know what resources to access when we have a camper suffering from mental health issues? Yes.
We have a responsibility to be aware of the issues our campers and their parents face, understand our role as educated youth professionals who often know more than the parents (most of whom are dealing with the issue for the first time), then provide those parents with support and resources.
Following is a discussion of:
- Basic information about current parenting trends and challenges facing youth
- Encouragement to expand your areas of expertise
- Ideas for sharing resources with your campers' parents
What's Going On With Parents?
Whether you refer to them as helicopters, lawn mowers, or micromanagers, today's parents take far more interest in the details and goings-on at camp than parents of past generations, and they struggle with allowing their child to experience any discomfort. The term "overparenting" is used to describe the trend of parents doing too much for their children, not allowing them to learn to do things for themselves.
How does this parenting style manifest at camp? Some parents will call when they notice their camper wearing the same shirt two days in a row in photos or see that their child's facial expression is "just not right."
We once had a parent who was crying on the phone saying she had a "bad feeling" that her child was suffering (she was not). Other parents will insist that their child be moved into a different cabin group or demand to speak to their child on the phone, even if the camp doesn't allow phone calls. Several times in recent summers, parents have told me "I just don't want him/her to be uncomfortable" when discussing their child's normal homesickness. A few parents couldn't handle the discomfort and came to pick their kids up early, despite our assurances that their child would be fine.
One mom who came to pick up her daughter a week early from a two-week session repeatedly asked her, "Are you so happy I came to get you?" This mom believed that she was being a great parent by rescuing her child from the mild discomfort she had experienced being away from home for the first time. The daughter politely answered her mother's question with, "yes," but we later found a letter she had written stating she no longer wanted to go home.
The Gift of Failure (Jessica Lahey) and How to Raise an Adult (Julie Lythcott- Haimes) both offer excellent insights into how parenting has changed in the past few decades and why we're seeing some behaviors from parents that limit children's normal growth and development. I highly recommend that you read or listen to one or both books to gain insights about the parenting style (and implications for youth) of the 2010s. Jean Twenge's iGen is also an extremely helpful guide to how the newest generation of campers we serve differs from the Millennials.
Rather than dismissing unusual parental behavior as irrational, it's helpful to understand that these behaviors are just the tip of the iceberg; the impossible requests, unrealistic expectations for a child's comfort 100 percent of the time, micromanagement from afar, and the difficulty many parents have with separation all come from an underlying trend of fear-based parenting. Parents are so fearful of negative outcomes for their children that they have trouble allowing the discomfort and failure that are (ironically) necessary for normal emotional growth. By trying so hard to protect their children, some parents may be unintentionally creating more negative outcomes. We often see those outcomes in the behaviors children exhibit at our camps.
Challenges Facing Youth
What behavior and mental health issues are you seeing at your camp? A good starting point for determining where you need to beef up your knowledge is making a list of the parent and camper concerns you faced last summer. Many of the issues will likely concern social-emotional health. It is estimated that 13 to 20 percent of children living in the United States (up to one out of five children) experience a mental disorder in a given year (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2009). More campers are coming to us with diagnoses, medications, and special supervision and behavioral management needs than ever before. Not surprisingly, we are also seeing children with more social skills deficits who have difficulty making and keeping friends. They often lack some basic relationship skills.
What Do You Already Know?
Once you have your list of trending issues, assess what you already know. Perhaps, because of your education and experience, you know a lot about working with campers with ADHD. What trainings do you lead with your counselors? In preparation for those trainings, you've most likely gathered some resources and educated yourself. Next, decide how you can further educate yourself before next summer. Is there a speaker, conference, book, or webinar that would give you some insight on how to best address the issues that come up at camp? Many excellent resources are available through American Camp Association (ACA) national conferences, local events, and webinars. You may already have expertise in a specific area from your years of experience at camp combined with your education (both formal and informal). What do you already know? Consider researching and learning even more about a parenting or youth well-being topic that interests you.
Providing Education and Resources to Parents
As camp professionals, we can be part of the solution by providing better support and education, especially during our not-as-busy off-season months. We can provide resources related to our camps and our core values that help parents understand ways they can help their children thrive.
One simple way to educate parents is by collecting resources and sharing that information with them. At the 2018 ACA National Conference, I attended a session offered by Camp Champions directors Kate Hutson and Steve Baskin. They shared that they send Dr. Michael Thompson's book, Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow, to each of their first-year families. What a brilliant idea! We decided to do the same and sent the book, along with an insert with some suggested pages (in case they weren't going to read the whole book — which most of them won't). We received great feedback from parents, who gained a greater understanding about why their child may experience some discomfort from the separation, and how that discomfort will lead to positive emotional growth. Consider shifting some of your marketing dollars to parent education.
Our camp parents (who have only parented their own children) look to us for guidance and education. They know, in most cases, that we have more experience with a wider and more diverse pool of children and issues. We have seen children with different challenges and have learned how to navigate varied and unique situations.
Parent Education Tactics
Whether you have a little time or a lot of time to share resources and information with parents, there are plenty of ways to do it.
Easy, Low-Time-Commitment Ways to Share Information with Parents
Slightly More Investment of Time
Offering these extra resources and education is not only helpful to your parents, but also elevates their view of you and your camp, as they will see you as much more than a provider of a summer camp program.
All-In Ideas for Parent Education
Resources for Camp Professionals
- Centers for Disease Control: cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/index.html
- Children and Nature Network: childrenandnature.org
- Common Sense Media: commonsensemedia.org
- Every Kid in a Park: everykidinapark.gov
- Healthy Camp Toolbox: ACAcamps.org/resource-library/research/healthy-camp-toolbox
- Mental Health First Aid: mentalhealthfirstaid.org
- Momentous Institute: momentousinstitute.org
- Raising Digital Natives: raisingdigitalnatives.com
- Sunshine Parenting: sunshine-parenting.com
- The Gottman Institute: gottman.com/parents
- Wait Until 8th: waituntil8th.org
- National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. (2009). Preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders among young people: Progress and possibilities. Retrieved from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK32775/
Audrey "Sunshine" Monke, MA, with her husband Steve, has owned and directed Gold Arrow Camp (Lakeshore, CA) for the past 30 years. She has been a member of ACA since 1989 and was president of the Western Association of Independent Camps (WAIC) from 2007–2010. Audrey has a podcast about camp and parenting, and her book, Happy Campers: Nine Parenting Secrets from Summer Camp to Raise Kids Who Become Thriving Adults, comes out in May 2019 (Center Street). Find out more at sunshine-parenting.com.