When I was a young, first-year staff member at camp, two orientation speakers left me with distinct lessons that have carried me through forty more years in camping. The first was a recommendation from Camp Director Grant Koch, who said, "Ladies and gentlemen, take advantage of your opportunities."
The second was advice from Tufts University professor and psychologist Lonnie Carton, PhD. He said, "Your job is to make kids feel lovable and capable," a sentiment that can shine through everything you do for kids at your camp.
As the season began, I learned quickly that one of the opportunities Grant was referring to, quite possibly the greatest one, was to positively impact the lives (and hopefully the futures) of the young people in our charge. Other than physical and emotional safety, what could be more important than that?
Camp offers a time for many things: playing sports, making crafts, singing, dancing, and, maybe most importantly, talking with campers and fellow staff.
Indeed, you will likely come to find that while your role as an activity instructor offers you the chance to teach children new skills while having fun, the most critical role you can play is through dialogue. Your close proximity in age to your older campers gives you an unparalleled secret power to make their world better.
Of course, the key to being a good conversationalist is being a good listener. When you hear what campers are saying and reflect back to them an understanding of what they said (called "active listening"), it reaffirms and strengthens your connection.
Youth Mental Health in America
These connections have never been more important than during America's current youth mental health crisis.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), "Research shows that one in six adolescents will experience a mental health condition in any given time. Additionally, 50 percent of all lifetime mental health conditions begin before the age of 14, and 75 percent start before the age of 24. However, identifying warning signs or symptoms and seeking treatment early can make a difference in reducing the impact of a mental health condition."
NAMI reminds us, "Children go through developmental phases that include changes in emotions, thoughts, and behavior. Most of the time, these are typical periods in development . . . When teenagers give you the cold shoulder, shut down, or ‘snap' at you, they may be trying, as teens should, to become their own individuals. During this time, they're developing their personal identities and breaking away from the family. Again, this is typical behavior. But when this type of situation persists or begins causing difficulty in their daily life, it may be a symptom of a mental health condition. This is the time to intervene" (NAMI, 2023).
Perhaps the most glaring reminder of the state of youth mental health lies in the staggering rates of suicides.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is one of the leading causes of deaths among adolescents aged 15–19 years (2023).
And the nation's Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, MD, warned in 2021 that there is an urgent need for a "swift and coordinated response" to the country's youth mental health emergency. Of this crisis he said, "Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread. Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide — and rates have increased over the past decade. The COVID-19 pandemic further altered their experiences at home, school, and in the community, and the effect on their mental health has been devastating. The future well-being of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation" (US Surgeon General, 2021).
According to a study at Virginia Commonwealth University that looked at how genetic and environmental factors influence the risk of suicidal thoughts in adolescents:
As one of the leading causes of death for teens in the United States, suicide is a major public health concern; however, the underlying factors that contribute to suicidal thoughts and behaviors in this population are not well understood.
Previous studies on adults have suggested that a person's risk of suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts are influenced by negative life events, family history, and genetics, but there is limited research focusing on adolescents.
Through this study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, the research team gleaned new information about how an adolescent's genetic risk and exposure to stressful life events contribute to suicidal thoughts. These results could help clinicians, families, educators, and community members better prevent suicidal thoughts and behaviors in teens.
Researchers from the VCU Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics analyzed clinical assessments and genetic data collected as part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, led by the University of Bristol that surveyed children from infancy through to adulthood. They specifically evaluated both the participants' genetic risk for suicide attempts and their exposure to adverse life experiences between 16 and 17 years old. The team compared this data with surveys that documented whether participants harbored suicidal thoughts and feelings of hopelessness at age 17. Moreover, they examined how these effects vary according to biological sex.
Their research revealed that suicidal thoughts were associated with drug use, bullying, and failure in both male and female participants. There was evidence that experiencing the death of a parent also increased the risk of suicidal thoughts in boys, while failure at school increased the risk of suicidal thoughts in girls. Additionally, the researchers found that in female participants using drugs while having a genetic predisposition for suicide further exacerbated the risk of suicidal thoughts.
The findings underscore the role negative life events play in triggering suicidal thoughts during adolescence, but they also show that some experiences can have an especially adverse impact on girls who already have a high genetic risk for suicide (Trani, 2022).
The JED Foundation advises that if you believe someone is at risk of hurting or killing themselves, you can take the following steps (JED, 2023):
- Help them reach out for support.
- Encourage them to stay away from mood-altering substances.
- Remove dangerous items.
NOTE: If you have reason to believe that a camper or fellow staff member is considering self-harm or suicide, don't panic. Instead, speak with your supervisor or camp director, who will know how to seek appropriate help.
Rescuing, Resilience, and Readiness
The Psychology Today article "Why Our Kids Are Anxious, Lonely, and Depressed — What We Can Do about It" draws a through line between what some have called "rescuing and a dearth of readiness among young people to face what the world will throw at them" (Wallace, 2022).
A recent social media post by NEA Sports makes the point that when Michael Jordan failed to make his varsity basketball team, his mother did not:
- Complain to the school
- Call the coach
- Demand a meeting with the athletic director
- Make her son transfer to another school
- Suggest her son take a year off from the JV basketball team
"She simply told Michael, ‘Get in the gym and work harder'" (Twitter, 2022). Such a sentiment helps children gain a sense of autonomy and the ability to solve problems on their own.
Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center reports a growing youth mental health crisis, sharing that 4 in 10 US parents with children younger than 18 say they are extremely or very worried that their children might struggle with anxiety or depression at some point. In fact, mental health concerns top the list of parental worries, followed by 35 percent who are similarly concerned about their children being bullied, according to a new survey. These items trump parents' concerns about certain physical threats to their children, the dangers of drugs and alcohol, teen pregnancy, and getting in trouble with the police" (Minkin and Menasce Horowitz, 2023).
Another report on mental illness prevalence says, "Both Mental Health America and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claim that the prevalence of mental illness in America is rapidly rising . . ." (Swarz, 2022).
Perhaps it's no surprise then that parents are concerned about their children's mental health while at camp. And remember: this summer you are acting in loco parentis (or in place of your campers' parents).
The bottom line is that, however well-intentioned, shielding youth from the consequences of their decisions and behaviors (rescuing) may very well leave them unprepared to succeed (at school, at camp, and in life). Kids need to learn, in real time, how being resilient when facing strife will prepare them (readiness) to handle other issues down the road. As a role model for your campers, you have the opportunity to help kids learn how to navigate difficult situations all the while gaining more self-confidence in their ability to problem solve and succeed.
What This Means for You
A key part of your role at camp is to build an infrastructure of safety, fun, and learning. While this philosophy contains many nuances, at the end of the day it's really about kindness and community.
Tom Rosenberg, president and chief executive officer of the American Camp Association, has said:
Summer camps offer campers and staff the opportunity to unplug and deeply connect in person and in child-centered, social-emotional communities. At camp, everyone belongs and learns to contribute altruistically in a nurturing, physically, and emotionally safe environment where they learn to build caring, trusting, and respectful relationships . . . . They become more aware of their own emotions and more adept at sharing their feelings and learning to understand someone else's experiences and feelings. Living in a kindness-emphasized community, campers and staff develop greater self-esteem and optimism. They learn to practice mindfulness and fully experience joy, relaxation, and happiness. Camps are positive psychology ecosystems.
Establishing and Maintaining Healthy Relationships with Campers
Twenty-one-year-old Cameron Gray — who has been an overnight camper, teen leader, and counselor at Camp Hazen in Connecticut — answered the following questions to provide you with tips on establishing and maintaining healthy (and helpful) relationships with campers.
1. Having been a camper, teen leader, and overnight camp counselor, what would you advise new counselors (or even returning ones) about building relationships with campers through interpersonal communications?
I would suggest to fellow returners or newcomers to just be your true self. Camp is an incredible place where people cannot hide behind screens. Everything is real and natural, so being yourself is your only option. This is where true and authentic relationships are born. I have had a number of times when I was a teen leader, camper, and counselor where I was very open with people or would check in with people who were having a hard time. As a counselor, I would have a different relationship with each camper in my cabin. I knew what they liked and did not like. This meant tossing a football or frisbee with a few campers or making friendship bracelets with others. This is what makes counselors better at their job.
Being able to take the time to foster relationships early in the summer/session will pay dividends throughout the summer. For example, I had a camper who was clearly a leader in the cabin but would always try to test the limits. I pulled him over early on in the session and acknowledged that he was a leader and that people look up to him and at him when he does something or says something. I simply asked him to be within reason. The idea that I took him aside and told him "good news" about his being a leader ended up making my summer a little less stressful, because anytime he would test the limits, I would simply give him the look of "use your image for good not bad."
2. Have you learned any "cautionary tales" along the way?
There are things like family issues or anything sexual that we just do not talk about at camp. Sometimes these problems come to light, and counselors can be caught in a sticky situation. What I found that worked was to have no tolerance for a sex talk or anything like that. Obviously, it was a little rough considering I had eight 13-year-old boys.
3. How do you establish appropriate boundaries between being a role model/mentor and a "friend?"
I think this is where being a little too open can bite you in the rear end. You want to be open and honest with campers, but you also have to remember you have a job, and this is not just you and your buddies on a camping trip. Any time campers would ask personal questions or touch on certain topics, I would simply just not engage in that conversation or try to change the subject or start another activity.
4. Should you and how do you respond to questions or conversation prompts related to such topics of substance use (underage drinking and other drug use), other or same-sex relationships, including intimate sexual behavior, or other "serious" and sensitive topics?
I have not been faced with those problems, but in response to drugs and drinking I would simply respond that when you are 21, you can make your own decisions. Trying to maintain a middle ground is key.
NOTE: Your camp may have specific policies regarding what you can and cannot talk about with a camper. If you are unsure where the lines are drawn, ask a director for guidance.
What You Say and What You Do
As much as talking with campers is a critical part of your job, what is equally instructive is to remember that, as a role model, you are always being watched by your campers to see what you do. If your behaviors do not match what you preach, you risk losing the respect of those you lead.
A Life-Changing Experience
It is quite possible, if not probable, that your experience this summer will be life-changing. End-of-season staff questionnaires provide reams of "qualitative research" of what camp offers counselors. A January 2023 ACA blog shares the perspectives of several of your peers and states, "Learning transferable skills and ways to move up in the organization will have staff returning after each season. Leadership, critical thinking, and time management skills are all things that staff can take from their summers at camp and use in other industries later in life" (Dowd et al., 2023).
I wish for you and your campers a summer of love, laughter, and friendship — and keep in mind that there is always a time to talk.
- CDC. (2023, January 18). Adolescent health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Health Statistics. cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/adolescent-health.htm
- Dowd, B., Delong, I., Richardson, S., & Blanton, S. (2023, January 15). Straight from the horse's mouth: What university students have to say about working at camp. American Camp Association. ACAcamps.org/blog/straight-horses-mouth-what-university-students-have-say-about-working-camp
- JED. (2023). Changing and saving lives. The Jed Foundation. jedfoundation.org.
- Minkin, R. & Horowitz, J. M. (2023, January 24). Parenting in America today. Pew Research Center. pewresearch.org/social-trends/2023/01/24/parenting-in-america-today
- NAMI. (2023). Kids. National Alliance on Mental Illness. nami.org/Your-Journey/Kids-Teens-and-Young-Adults/Kids
- Rosenberg, T. (2018, July 24). Celebrating kindness at camp. American Camp Association.ACAcamps.org/blog/celebrating-kindness-camp
- Swarz, A. L. (2022, July 6). 2022: The prevalence of mental illness in America. The Written Works of A. L. Swarz. alswartz.com/2022/07/06/2022-the-prevalence-of-mental-illness-in-america
- Trani, O. (2022, September 9). New study shines light on risk factors for suicidal thoughts in teens. Virginia Commonwealth University. news.vcu.edu/article/2022/09/new-study-shines-light-on-risk-factors-for-suicidal-thoughts-in-teens
- Twitter. (2022, June 9). @MrCmonNow. twitter.com/MrCmonNow/status/1534950310770118664
- US Surgeon General. (2021). Protecting youth mental health: US Surgeon General's advisory. hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-youth-mental-health-advisory.pdf
- Wallace, S. (2022, September 20). Unprepared: why kids are anxious, lonely, and depressed and what we can do about it. Psychology Today. psychologytoday.com/us/blog/decisions-teens-make/202209/unprepared-why-kids-are-anxious-lonely-and-depressed
- Wallace, S. (2021). IMPACT: An introduction to counseling, mentoring, and youth development. acabookstore.org/impact-an-introduction-to-counseling-mentoring-and-youth-development-epub
- Wallace, S. (2019, July 23). Camp Kindness Day 2019. LinkedIn. linkedin.com/pulse/camp-kindness-day-2019-stephen-gray-wallace
- YouTube. (2021, December 7). Surgeon General issues rare public health advisory over youth mental health crisis. NBC News. youtube.com/watch?v=1LQz6r6DiM8
Stephen Gray Wallace is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) and co-founder of CampTelligence, a broad-based consulting group. He has vast experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as a consultant to educational institutions, including summer camps. He is also a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com, NBCUniversal's Learn, and WebMD. For additional information about Stephen's work, please visit StephenGrayWallace.com.
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