Do you have any thoughts about what to say to staff or campers who may have fears or anxiety in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings and the bombings at the Boston Marathon? We hope we don’t have any fallout among campers and staff, but we also know it is better to be prepared than caught off guard.
Jane Kagan, director/owner
Lake Bryn Mawr Camp for Girls
Honesdale, Pennsylvania / Short Hills, New Jersey
Given the tragic nature of these two events, and the fact that they were both widely viewed, it makes sense to be ready in case you have campers or staff who are concerned or worried about their safety at camp. One of the downsides of the wonderful mobile technology we enjoy is that many more children witness events in details they are not always equipped to put into perspective, often leaving them feeling overwhelmed and frightened.
Part One: Being Clear Ourselves
I think that before we, as adults, speak with a child or staff member about their fears or anxiety related to these horrific events, it is wise to be clear with ourselves about our own thoughts and feelings.
Let us remember that while each of these events and others like them are tragic and senseless, they are still relatively rare. We all agree that even one such event is one too many. That said, it serves us well to remember that these events command high attention in the media and leave us with the impression they are happening all the time. They are not. Children do not have the ability to keep things in perspective to the degree we can as adults. Their frontal lobes, from which perspective originates, are simply not well-enough developed. That said, our calm and the reassurance in our voices will be more credible to others if we can remind ourselves that these are rare events. Yes, there will be more of them. And yet the chances of them happening at camp or in our backyard is truly slim.
Second, it is important to remember how even murderous and hateful acts can bring out the best in human beings. In Boston, there were multiple acts of heroism. There were doctors running the race who, as soon as they crossed the finish line and realized the situation, immediately went to their respective hospitals to perform life-saving emergency surgery on over 177 victims. Not one person who made it to a hospital died from their wounds. There were scores of people who ran toward, not away from, the blasts to help others. There were thousands of people who, without being asked, immediately donated blood for the victims. When officials asked over a million residents of the greater Boston area to “shelter in place” and not venture out from their homes, they willingly cooper¬ated out of a spirit of community and solidarity.
It is important for us to remember these displays of humanity in the face of calamity because we need to have faith in ourselves and other people if we are to prevent grief and loss from overtaking us. When we focus on the good and the courageous, we reinvest in one another and pledge not to allow the hateful and senseless acts of others to erode our love and our community. Remembering the amazing selfless acts of courage helps strengthen the care, patience, understanding, and love in our communities — including our camp community. Focusing on the positive is perhaps the most powerful and reassuring thing we can do for children and staff. Doing so makes a powerful statement: “We are truly here for you and one another. We don’t just say that — we live that!”
Part Two: Speaking with Campers
Once we have the measure of our own feelings and thoughts about these occur¬rences, we can think about ways to speak with and reassure children. The following is a list of some things that will help:
- As the adults at camp, it is important to follow the camper’s lead. That means we don’t ever bring up the subject of violence or mass shootings ourselves, but we also do not duck the subject if it is clear that a camper (or staff member) is genuinely disturbed and needs reassurance.
- Acknowledge their feelings: “Yes, it is a scary thing to think about.” Acknowledging feelings helps establish a connection with you and the child or staff member and helps him or her be more receptive to what you might say later.
- Share your own feelings without going into too much detail about your own story. Remember that the point of sharing your own feelings is to normalize what a child or staff member might be feeling. Why wouldn’t we be frightened, nervous, or worried? Normalizing a child’s feelings helps them feel less alone and more connected. That said, sharing too many details of your own experience may be confusing to a child and may reinfect them with fear or anxiety. As I have already said, children do not have as well-developed a sense of perspective as adults, so telling them our own story may make it hard for them to contain their worry.
- Acknowledge reality: “Yes, there are bad people in the world.” I think this is a credibility issue. Children need to know that bad things do happen. We cannot prevent that. Welcome to life. However, this admission needs to be balanced with another reality: “Luckily, there are many, many more good people in the world.”
- Add some clarity: “Camp is the safest place any child or young person can be during the summer.” By the way, don’t take my word for it. Check out www.CampParents.org/funsafety, which discusses how ACA-accredited camps set the standard for fun and safety.
- Add a bit more clarity: “Here at camp we have a long history of keeping camp¬ers safe. We do lots of fun but risky activities with you, and we make sure everyone who does them is safe and has fun!” I’d mention a few examples, like the zip line, the climbing tower, the horseback riding program, swimming, or archery. Indeed, camps have a tradition of doing high-risk activities with children, and in spite of that, they have one of the best safety records there is. Ask your insurance agent!
- Add even more clarity: “We always keep an eye on anyone who comes near the camp property. No one can come into camp if we don’t know who he or she is. There are a lot of people here at camp looking out for you!”
- Utilize some psychological skill: “No one likes to feel scared or afraid. So let’s help you so your bad feelings (your fear, your anxiety, your worry) don’t get the best of you!” Then invite the camper or staff member to “think healing/happy thoughts.” What are the things that make them feel happy or safe? What is a place they go in real life that they can “visit” in their minds where they feel safe? Doing some visualization can help even young children put their fears in place.
Yes, there are bad things that happen to innocent people. It would be great if we could give any child — or parent — a guarantee about keeping him or her safe. We all know this is unrealistic. What we can do is give campers a guarantee about our care and concern and our willingness to be there to help them master that fear. After all, mastery is what camp is all about.
Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy.
Originally published in the 2013 July/August Camping Magazine