Counseling Teens: How to Help Teenagers Create Memorable Summers

Greg Cronin, MPA, CCD

Being a counselor to teenagers is one of the most important jobs you will ever have. During this summer, you will learn more about life than you can possibly imagine.

And as is often the case with meaningful learning situations, counseling teenagers will surely test every fiber of your being. Returning staff who are reading this article probably can't help but smile because they already know how much energy it takes to be successful.

So here is the key question: If you are in charge of a group of teens, how can you create lasting memories in your campers?

The answer to this question is complicated. Experienced staff might tell you memories are made because of increased physical activity or the extended days of group living. Others will insist it's being away from home, not being with their family/friends from home, or even not having a taste of their favorite food. The list of possibilities is almost endless, and in truth, they would all be partially correct.

Ultimately, the success of this job lies in your ability to get teens to understand how they can incorporate life's lessons through fun activities. This task becomes complicated because you are simultaneously trying to work on your own philosophy and sometimes, when you least expect it, the two will collide.

Today's Teenagers

Even though you have just been through these formative years, learning about how teens function is an ever-changing and complex topic — especially when you are the one trying to provide leadership. It can be extremely frustrating when camper behavior or logistics keep you from being at your best. Camp, by definition, requires all people to function in a group-oriented world. What if one or more of your campers has trouble coping with this lifestyle?

Campers come to camp with a myriad of issues that can make the transitions to group life difficult. Happiness and excitement can easily be replaced with frustration and stress when uneasy situations arise. It is important you take the time to learn what they need as well as what they want.

Just as with your friends, teens and tweens are dealing with depression, attention deficit, impulsivity, abuse, learning disorders, alienation, or any host of other issues. Even when these conditions are not present, you will have to cope with the sliding scale of transformations teens experience before, during, or after middle school. The most notable of these are the need to: develop relationships, test limits, deal with puberty, create drama, cope with conflict, and for some, become comfortable with their bodies. This transition is challenging for everyone, but when you introduce a group living situation with new people, personal decisions are magnified and self images become fragile. Dr. Marilyn Benoit (1998), an expert in human development, states that biological maturation is long completed while teens are battling the conflicts of adolescence and are far removed from the identity consolidation that tends to come several years later.

What Factors Drive Teen Learning?

In an age of instant information, teen learning is at warp speed. If "Generation X" grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, and "Generation Y" grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, what do we have now — "Generation Text"? If everything is happening "right now," at the click of a button, when do teens have a chance to learn life skills that take a lifetime to practice? These universal problems are formidable, but they can be overcome with the proper environment and a careful plan.

The magic in the camp experience becomes a reality when you can manage individual problems while attaining group goals. See the quote from Bill Gates on page 66. He is right — take the time to work with your most challenging campers. The best way to accomplish this is for you to PARTICIPATE IN ALL CAMP ACTIVITIES! Make it a priority to stay with you campers and help them complete games, projects, and special events. Essentially, you need to create a culture within your camper group that defines an age-appropriate level of acceptable behavior. The goal of camp activities is three-fold: have fun, learn life lessons through self-discovery, and create a safe rite of passage for the next stage of personal development.

Teen Group Management

Teens will challenge you and your personal values. Intelligent and consistent communication is the key to success. Just as you wanted to establish an independence from your parents, your teen campers will test you the same way. Be clear in your directives while respecting new ideas and independent thought.

Here are some helpful hints for teen group management — all you have to do is remember G.R.O.U.P. This acronym is designed to remind you how to gain teen trust.

  • Get to know specific details about your campers' lives. They will be grateful.
  • Relationship building is revered. Remember to start day one.
  • Opportunity is short. Operate with outcome objectives in mind.
  • "U" become invested in every activity. Uniformly enforce group guidelines that they will help create.
  • Participate in problem solving.

Here is the good news. You have a big advantage over most older camp staff because chronologically you are the closest in age to the campers. This makes you supremely important because campers are much more likely to relate to what you do than anybody else in camp. It is critical for you to use current topics and language when working with campers because it allows them to gain valuable insight into appropriate ways to problem solve. Use personal experiences to illustrate important points and ask lots of open ended questions to measure degrees of understanding.

Get your campers talking! It is amazing how many students these days simply do not express themselves in class. The National Association of Secondary School Principals (Vermette, 2009) sponsored a series of research studies around the country. In ninth grade they observed the average student spoke publicly once a day in class for a short time. Often, they only spoke one word (e.g. "yes" or "no"). When these students come to camp there is often a problem with engagement. You can help resolve this problem if you turn teaching into learning and make activities active by showing, helping, changing, or creating.

Boost Self-Esteem and Prevent Failure

From the first day of camp, you have to have a plan. Teens respect a teambuilding approach to decision making and it is your responsibility to empower them to support group goals. Activities will keep campers occupied and food will distract their attention, so you are left with cabin/group time and other unstructured time to program. Great counselors know the non-activity time is when real problems can occur. Refocus them by playing games, telling stories, creating special projects, and doing activities that meet the needs of the day.

Campers want to succeed — even if they can't admit it. Failure typically occurs when you don't manage teens through the entire summer. During each session, you must follow through on projects, responsibilities, and discipline. They will watch your behavior for inconsistencies, and poor motivation on your part will only exacerbate potential problem situations.

Create tasks that will not fundamentally affect the camp experience. Let tweens (young teens) or teens brainstorm, plan, present, and evaluate activities. Don't make them too complicated, and be sure some degree of success is guaranteed. Praise them for their efforts and ask how this fits into the big picture. Here are some great ideas for teens/tweens: Use them as camper-mentors (big pal/little pal), have them create a new dessert with special menus, let them referee games, teach skills like belaying or swimming, or have them be camp director for a day.

Dr. Ellen Webber (2005), in her book on strategies for dealing with youth, suggests staff try using "two-footed" questions. Each prong of the two-footed question increases curiosity to learn more about a topic, and each moves thinking along toward a doable resolution. A simple question might be: "What lives in the lake near our cabin?" Or a more complex question might be: "That's an awesome arrowhead you found. What effect could it have on your life today?" Two-footed questions allow you to probe campers' minds by creating a relationship between current situations and a deeper, more meaningful thought they might never talk about.

What Teens Want

In talking with teenagers last summer, it became very apparent they have some common areas of concern. It is difficult for them to communicate with adults who think P!nk is only a color and "What's My Name" is a game show, not a song by Rihanna. The personal side of these conversations will remain confidential, but you need to be aware of what they told me so you can focus on potential solutions. Most campers who talked to me had problems in multiple categories but were extremely grateful I asked. Here is a synopsis of what they want you to do:

  • Teach them survival skills. Teens are often lost in the world and they don't know how to feel accepted by peers and/or adults.
  • Listen to them. Help facilitate a quality decision-making process that leads to having their feelings validated.
  • Be benevolent. Show them a healthy way to care without always getting hurt.
  • Teach ways to form healthy relationships and identify what safe boundaries look like.
  • Help them be a part of a group where they belong.
  • Let them take healthy risks. Push the comfort zone and be supportive.
  • Do activities that increase self-esteem.
  • Know their lives are too structured. Honor this by helping them be creative. Being creative is very difficult for many teens because they have little down time.
  • Show them what success looks like. Do it during activities, at meals, after line up, during quiet moments, and during emotional moments.


Teens today are dealing with some very complicated issues that will have lasting effects well into their adult lives. The academic and social pressures can be enormous even under ideal conditions. Many young adults have the extra problems of learning, eating, or behavioral disorders and have to resolve them while trying to survive in school. When teens go to camp they lose much of their electronic life, and it gets replaced by group-oriented physical activities. To connect with teens, you must participate in activities to gain their trust. By using the G.R.O.U.P. principle, you will quickly be able to establish a close relationship with campers. This creates an ideal two-way situation for open communication, teambuilding, and creating lasting friendships.

Great counselors lead by example and make decisions based on fact and not emotion. Programming is specifically designed to help teens understand why their actions are important. By using two-footed questions, you can relate daily activities to life experiences. This is a great time to practice the "talk less, listen more" technique of facilitating. Be very aware of what teens really want, even if they don't ask. Strive for a group culture that promotes respect and quality decision making. Above all else, have fun and don't take criticisms personally. Remember, your difficult campers may be your greatest source of learning.

Benoit, M. (1998) The role of physical factors. University of Maryland Public Policy, p. 2.

Vermette, P. (2009) Engaging Teens In Their Own Learning. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Webber, E. (2005) MI strategies in the classroom and beyond: Using roundtable learning. New York, NY: Pearson Education.

Greg Cronin of GC Training Solutions is a certified camp director and staff trainer with over thirty years of staf f training experience. All staff trainings are custom designed to fit your specific needs. For more information on consultant services, trainings, workshops, conferences, or articles, please visit To contact Greg directly, please call 703-395-6661 or email