Can you relate to this situation?

Something happens that is upsetting, difficult, and/or problematic. You talk to a friend or your parents about it, and they offer rational, useful advice. Even though what they are offering is useful, you almost automatically come up with all sorts of reasons why it won’t work. You are not even open to the possibility that the advice being offered to you might resolve your problem.

Sometimes their advice might even leave you more irritated than you were before you called them. This is probably because you really only wanted someone to agree with you and let you vent! You didn’t want advice; you didn’t want suggestions for improvement.

Consider this example:

A roommate does something that annoys you. You talk about it with your parents or a close friend, and they give really good, rational advice. Regardless of how good and rational the advice may be, you find yourself getting more irritated. You say things like, “That may work with a sane person, but my roommate is crazy!” or “I’ve tried that and it didn’t work.” The truth is that you probably didn’t actually try to resolve the problem in the way it is being suggested to you now.

The very thought of that roommate makes you so irritated that you are incapable of being open-minded and rational.

Children are no different. If anything, they are worse!

For all the advancements humans have made, one truth remains constant: People are primarily emotional, not rational. When our emotions are running at high intensity, these emotions overtake the brain and make it virtually impossible to access the more advanced part of the brain where rational decision making and thinking takes place (Nadler, 2009).

Because of this, a camper who is really upset is going to be almost incapable of hearing any talk of solutions. Anything you say before he or she is ready to listen and consider actually doing what you suggest is generally a waste of time and energy. It is only after the emotional upheaval calms that a camper can access the parts of his or her brain where rational thinking and planning occur.

One of the most valuable skills you can possess as a camp counselor is the ability to help an upset camper calm down, breathe deeply, and return to feeling settled and in control.

So how can you quickly and effectively do this with campers?

Don’t Do That, Do This

Say “Calm down,” or “take a chill pill,” or any other variation of this type of counsel. Comments like these are far more inclined to incite kids to be angrier than to calm them down. When children (and adolescents and adults, for that matter) are really upset, they want most to feel heard, understood, and validated. If they could calm down on their own, they already would have. Those comments tend to just feel disrespectful or belittling.

Instead, DO THIS
Repeat back to them what they are saying. “You are real ly ticked off at Tommy . . . Tommy is being unfair . . . You feel Tommy likes the other boys better than you . . . Tommy did not throw you the ball even though you were wide open, and you say he did it on purpose.” Regardless of whether the camper’s story is accurate, it is calming to him to know that someone is listening and he is being heard.

Ask a camper who is in a very agitated state to sit down and talk with you. This goes against his adrenaline f low and will of ten prove more inflammatory. He needs to be moving to keep the energy that is stirred up inside him from becoming overwhelming.

Instead, DO THIS
Ask your camper to take a walk with you and let him talk while he is in motion. Just think about how, often, you feel so much better after you exercise and how this has a calming and focusing effect on your brain. The same is true with children. Doing something that is physically active (even a walk) will often help your camper calm down very quickly. A lot of the most effective counseling work I’ve done in the past thirty years has happened while walking with a client or shooting hoops on the basketball court. Don’t be surprised if the same proves true for you this summer.

Tell your camper that this is “no big deal” or “this is not the end of the world.” While he is deeply engrossed in the part of his brain that is primarily emotional, he is incapable of having perspective. To him, it does feel like the end of the world — just as it does to you when you are really upset.

Instead, DO THIS
Say something like, “Wow I’m really sorry this happened, and I’m glad you’re telling me. It may not be easy, but we will work together to ensure the next time you play football, everyone gets an equal chance.” Having the hurt he feels validated makes him feel more connected with you and, by default, safer and more relaxed. Also, make certain to state what the solution you are offering to facilitate will look like. Having a positive picture of a different future is highly effective at helping your camper calm himself. Thus, saying, “We will work together to ensure the next time you play football, everyone gets an equal chance,” is far more effective than just saying, “We will work together to find a solution.”

Use humor to make light of things.

You have such a great rapport with your camper that you know for certain he will respond positively.

And if so, THEN DO THIS
Use humor, inside jokes, or something playful like putting on music your camper likes. Oftentimes, the people who know us best know how to get us to “lighten up” almost instantly by saying or doing just the right thing.

Aim to develop that kind of relationship with all of your campers.

If you do, not only will it be easier to help them calm down and be rational about solving problems, it will also make them far less likely to ever get that upset in the first place. Sometimes prevention is still the best medicine.


Discussion Questions

  • What are some other “Dos” and “Don’ts” when it comes to handling emotional camper behavior?
  • What can you do to create environments that prevent problematic situations between campers?
  • How can you help a camper who is upset but doesn’t come talk to you about it?


Nadler, R. (2009). What was I thinking? Handling the hijack. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Jeffrey Leiken, MA, is a professional mentor who has helped train over 10,000 summer camp counselors. He travels the world, specializing in empowering youth to lead extraordinary lives. Learn more at, or contact him at or 415.441.8218.

Originally published in the 2013 May/June Camping Magazine.