Twenty Insider Tips for Working with Adolescents at Camp

Karen Goeller, PhD
May 2016
Hiking

Camp staff beware and be ready! You may have already been warned about your adolescent campers. Wild mood swings and impulsive behaviors will happen, or if you are lucky, you may simply be ignored. Adolescents do not get a free pass to act this way over and over at camp. Yet, the rest of us do need to take a deep breath and consider that these biological changes are perfectly normal and that we are the ones who must adjust our behavior.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, researcher of the adolescent brain, offers helpful advice with these 20 ready-to-use tips to get you off to a good start this camp season in dealing with your campers’ still-developing brains:

Tip One: Learn about Teenage Brain Development

Get a head start on camping with your teens. Watch the YouTube video (16.31 minutes) The Neuroanatomical Transformation of the Teenage Brain: Jill Bolte Taylor at TEDxYouth@Indianapolis. Find out how important brain development is during the teenage years. Taylor will open your eyes to why you need to and how you can help.

Tip Two: Take Charge of Adolescents Right from the Start

Identify campers between the ages of ten and 19. Quickly learn names and a few logistics. Ask your campers to respond to three quick questions, perhaps about backgrounds, likes/dislikes, and what they hope to gain from camp. Try to remember something special about each camper to help you establish a strong rapport early on. Adolescents want to know you are available and interested in them as individuals.

Tip Three: Stay Focused on Campers’ Immaturity

Taylor tells those of us who work with adolescents and teens to “Keep ’em alive ’til 25!” The brain’s frontal lobe, responsible for personality make-up, impulse control, and judgment about what is right and wrong, is not completely developed until about age 25. Be alert: Your campers are thinking, speaking, and acting with brains that are not fully mature. This may apply to you, too, as you sort through and make sense of your own behavior.

Tip Four: Create Teachable Moments about the Brain

It is far better to face the known than the unknown! You can find easy-to-use brain games, lesson plans, videos, and project ideas on educational sites like Society for Neuroscience (brainfacts.org). Build in fireside chats and small group discussions around simple brain facts to help adolescents and teens process changes taking place. Letting them talk openly together will lead to a healthier camp community.

Tip Five: Show Your Campers How to Remain Calm

Learning to remain calm starts with you. Explain to your campers that when their anxiety levels are high, they don’t feel safe and are less likely to make good choices. Teach them simple strategies like walking away from a problem, taking a deep breath before speaking when angry, and just trying to imagine the situation from another point of view. Work together with your campers to design real-life trigger scenarios and then have fun letting them practice handling these scenarios with simple and positive strategies.

Tip Six: Be the Rock that Adolescents Need

Be that solid, responsible staffer who represents security and consistency during this time of emotional ups and downs. Your positive attitude and smile matter more than you know. Because they are experiencing so many simultaneous physical and neurological changes, adolescents need stability most of all in their lives. Be the responsible person in charge as opposed to being another friend.

Tip Seven: Take Care of Nutrition Essentials

Be the camp staffer who reminds teens that what they are eating is what they are feeding their brain cells. Try to plan simple and healthy snacks as rewards for activities. Cooking healthy snacks together at camp will transfer into improved eating habits throughout later years. Eating healthy snacks yourself, such as fruit and nuts, and drinking plenty of water will help you stay in shape to keep up with them.

Tip Eight: Make Positive Peer Relationships Happen

Peer relationships are everything during adolescence. All teens want to belong at camp, so we must look for ways to include each and every one of them. Making structured introductions at first will be important as well as planning daily activities where campers are paired with different partners. Help campers recognize interests that they have in common. Only by mixing teens together repeatedly will you give them chances to get to know each other well and forge new friendships.

Tip Nine: Insist on a Bedtime Schedule

Keep a structured bedtime schedule for your adolescent campers and for you. Make sure your teenagers get to bed on time so they get plenty of sleep to stay healthy. Taylor emphasizes that sleep is when the brain cleanses itself, so convey that message and don’t let your campers shortchange themselves. Even though they won’t like it, teenagers need to turn off their technological devices at night to enable their brains to rest.

Tip Ten: Push Campers to Problem Solve Together

Structure time for adolescents to think logically and problem solve together. They can hear peers try out ideas and make group decisions. They can see that doing what is right is not always easy. Join in a group and let your campers watch you thinking aloud and hear you considering pros and cons of options in various situations.

Tip 11: Recognize and Reinforce Positive Emotions

Be on the lookout for ways to help campers know and control their emotions. Look for simple ways during the day where you can recognize and reinforce positive emotions and kind behaviors. You can point out, “I really liked how you smiled and laughed when Emma told her story. You made her feel like such a valuable part of the group.” Or you can say, “Thank you for walking with Jose today. He seems tired and your positive energy helped.” Teens benefit from concrete examples.

Tip 12: Encourage Teens to Explore New Hobbies, Skills, and Talents

Teenagers are making new connections within their brains. Encourage them to join unfamiliar sports and groups at camp where there is no fear of failure. We want them to try new activities where they will not be ridiculed for not being good. Share how you yourself have tried a new skill and were awkward at first. Taylor stresses that this is the time for them to “plant the seeds and tend the gardens of their minds.”

Tip 13: Listen, Listen, and Listen Some More

Be patient and give campers your full attention. Adolescents are moving from dependency to independence, and as Taylor relays, they need a safe haven. Allow them time to work out their own problems if possible. Try to help them better communicate or summarize their issues so they can think more clearly and become more self-sufficient.

Tip 14: Teach the 90-second Rule for Anger Management

Taylor tells us we have 90 seconds to think a thought, feel emotions, and run a physiological response. Teens can recognize how this anger takes over their bodies. Encourage them to wait and observe instead of immediately engaging in actions. Teach them that when they become angry, they can take a deep breath and come back to the present moment.

Tip 15: Seek Help for Self-harmful Behaviors

Be alert for and seek help for campers’ dangerous behaviors. They are often influenced by peers to engage in harmful risk-taking behaviors. Taylor shares that teens do not clearly grasp the relationships between their immediate actions and their longer-term consequences. Campers depend on counselors and other staff to learn ways to cope with pressures and make healthier and wiser choices. Tell your supervisor immediately if any camper tells you about self-harmful behavior.

Tip 16: Lead Right Brain, Compassionate Conversations

Develop activities that focus on the brain’s right hemisphere, helping adolescents see similarities and the larger picture of how we are all connected. Our right brain focuses on compassion, playfulness, imagination, and caring about the present. As an example, your camp group could read a nature poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson or Emily Dickinson and reflect on how we can all join together to improve our planet. Perhaps campers can design a nature collage to illustrate their ideas. Right brain lessons at camp will inspire campers to take on more ethical challenges later.

Tip 17: Teach Cooperation, Not Competition

The right brain is all about treating others with respect. Teach campers about respect and good sportsmanship, playing with others instead of against others. Set the tone that games are more for pleasure than for competition. Praise teens who recognize good plays by members of the opposing team. Have them shake hands before and after a game or contest. Your own words and actions matter, so have fun when you play, be a good loser, and be sure not to brag when you win.

Tip 18: Teach Campers How to Leverage Left Brain Skill Sets

We also want campers to understand the verbal and reasoning abilities of the brain’s left hemisphere. The left brain is methodical. Adolescents need to know that their left hemisphere is more focused on details, judgment, and boundaries. Teach them to plan camping events using left brain skill sets. Campers can make outlines, thinking through steps to make sure they are logical, realistic, and practical.

Tip 19: Create Your Own Peer Support Group

When you become frustrated or angry at camp, grab two other staff members and form a triad of support. Perhaps they are experiencing similar issues. Be open to the ideas and feedback of others. When you ask their advice about a particular incident, use their perspectives to learn and grow. Reflect together, create new brain-based ideas, and get back in the game. Your campers are depending on you!

Tip 20: Help Campers Recognize Their Power

Taylor encourages us to pay attention to what we are doing with our power. The natural camp setting gives adolescents a chance to put away technological devices and focus attention elsewhere. Emphasize to your campers that they can choose how they respond in emotional situations. They have an awesome responsibility to make the right choices. We want them to leave camp with self-confidence and a positive and more caring attitude about their place in the world.

Final Words for Camp Staff

It is up to you to help your campers understand and appreciate their brain development. Reassure them that it is okay — even better than okay — it is wonderful for them to experience these magnificent changes to their brains. Taylor is quick to point out that the brains our campers bring to camp are not the brains with which they will leave. You are on the front line helping your campers build healthy brains. Be sure to teach them to be mindful of their awesome power to make positive choices at camp and elsewhere in the future.

About Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor shares a moment-by-moment account of her own severe brain hemorrhage in the New York Times bestseller, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey (2008). She explains the intricate steps of losing cognitive abilities during a massive stroke through the lens of a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist who can also recount the anatomy and biology behind the traumatic event. Taylor attributes her recovery to her advantage as a neuroscientist to believe in her brain’s ability to retrain its circuitry as well as the love of her mother, who helped her make the connections necessary for her brain to completely heal. She uses her own experiences to inform her research on brain development.

Photo courtesy of Sanborn Western Camps, Florissant, Colorado.

Karen Goeller, PhD, lives in Terre Haute, Indiana, with her husband Michael. She has two grown children, Scott and Kate. She currently serves as deputy superintendent of the Vigo County School Corporation. Karen and Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor spent their summers growing up together at Camp Na Wa Kwa in Poland, Indiana.