We had a first-time eight-year-old female camper last summer who, after a brief bout of homesickness, adjusted well to camp, made friends, and began enjoying the activities. Overall she was a great camper! The only problem had to do with our lodge, where we have two deer heads mounted on the walls. For whatever reason, this little girl had a strong negative reaction to the deer. When she first saw them she became extremely fearful, cried, and needed to leave the room. After that episode, she had a fearful reaction when she came anywhere near the building. No matter how we tried to reassure her or explain that the deer were harmless, she remained strongly averse to going into the lodge. Short of removing the deer from the lodge, what might we have done to help this young lady feel safer and able to participate in our many all-camp lodge activities? A call to her baffled parents gave us no insight into this sudden anxiety.
Fearful in the Forest
The first thing I would do with this young camper would be to talk with her calmly, far away from the lodge, to see if I could ascertain exactly what it is about the deer that frightens her. The reason for this talk is to make sure we target the correct problem. It might be that there is a specific aspect of her fear that we could focus on. In some ways, it doesn’t matter too much what the specific fear is; I would end up using the same two techniques to help her overcome her fear no matter what it might be. These two techniques are called “desensitizing” and “positive revisualization.”
The basic idea behind desensitizing is to help someone overcome their fear in small, incremental steps by exposing them to the stressful stimulus — in this case, the mounted deer — and slowly increasing their capacity for tolerating the anxiety. With a simple program, you can achieve good results in two weeks or less. I would start with a short talk with this young lady about how her feelings are “playing a trick on her.” Elaborating on that theme, I would say in plain terms that while her feelings of fear and distress are real, they are also making life hard for her. The idea is to be able to simultaneously validate what she is feeling while making it clear that even she knows the deer are harmless. It is the way she is thinking about the deer that is causing the problem! Then engage her in an alliance — a partnership with a trusted staff member — to help her overcome her fear. This first step is critical because your camper will need to commit to working on the problem — but we will make the “work” fun!
Get three stuffed animals or puppets, two of which are cuddly and fun and one of which is a deer (the offending culprit in this case). Introduce the two cuddly (nonthreatening) animals to her one at a time in a one-on-one conversation where you can reinforce the idea of helping regain control of her feelings. Introduce the first cuddly animal, then the second. Allow her some playtime where she can name the animals and make up a story about them. After she has had some time to become familiar with the first two animals, introduce the deer. Tell her you got a deer to help her “practice” being less afraid and being comfortable around it. Don’t worry if she says this deer is different from the one in the lodge. There are enough coinciding factors between the stuffed animal and the deer in the lodge that it will begin to help her become acclimated to the idea of the deer in the lodge. Tell her she can play with the animals and that they are hers to keep. Ask her to make up a story about the two cuddly animals being friends and then meeting the deer and making friends with it.
While she can play with her animals during free time and rest hour, it would be best to have a short (twenty-minute) play session with her for three days in a row. This could occur during rest hour, free play, or whenever you think you can fit it into her schedule. Remember that you are making an investment in her being able to be more flexible in camp, so if she misses an activity or two in order to play with her new “friends,” the potential benefit and gain will be worth it.
After three days, it is time to introduce the second strategy, known as visualization. Simply ask her during one of her play sessions to close her eyes and imagine the lodge without the deer heads in them. Have her imagine being in the lodge with her best friends, having a really fun time. Ask her what in her mind a “really fun time” in the lodge would look like. She might answer that she imagines herself singing or dancing with her friends. Or that she is eating ice cream with her friends. It doesn’t matter what she imagines, as long as it is happy, upbeat, and positive. While the picture of having fun in the lodge should come from her imagination (not yours!) as much as possible, you may help guide her if she gets stuck or begins to add negative elements, like a disagreement among friends or anything similar.
After she has visualized herself being in the deer-less lodge a couple of times over the course of two different days, have her do a third visualization on day three. (Meanwhile, she should still be having her play sessions with her stuffed animals/puppets.) This time, have her start out the same way, picturing herself having fun in the lodge and feeling happy and safe. Then ask her to imagine the deer heads on the wall again. At this point, you will need to be ready to soothe and reassure her and remind her that this is only her imagination. If she becomes anxious or fearful, simply encourage her to hang in there, saying calmly, “You’re doing great! Stay with it! Good for you! You can do this!” After two visualizations like this, she is ready to walk by the lodge — not go in, just walk by. After that, she’s ready to walk by and stand on the porch. You might even ask her if there is anyone she’d like to go over to the lodge with in addition to you — a friend or other trusted staff member — whom she can use for support and encouragement.
After laying this groundwork, she should be able to continue to make forays toward and into the lodge — not at first with a lot of other campers, but perhaps with one or two. Give her praise at each step of her progression, and allow her to be proud of each step she takes. You can report her progress to her parents. They can even help out by speaking with her briefly on the phone and letting her know how proud they are of her, provided that doing so doesn’t introduce any complicating factors (like renewed homesickness).
The point of each of these strategies is to progress incrementally and in small steps. At each juncture, your camper will build both a sense of success and control. Recent research into anxiety and trauma tells us that when children feel they have a “safe haven,” they can tolerate fearful situations and recover from frightening situations much more quickly. You are helping her develop that sense of safety by working calmly and progressively. While these two strategies — desensitization and visualization — are presented here with regard to the specific fear of the deer in the lodge, they can be applied in many different settings or situations. They are designed to help children master their feelings and therefore be increasingly able to engage with the world and experience success, which is, after all, the essence of camp!
Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy.
Originally published in the 2013 March/April Camping Magazine.