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Advice for Young Camp Counselors: Dealing with Unhappy Campers

You’re a first-time summer camp counselor.  You’ve got some kids in your care that are unhappy and acting out or acting withdrawn.  What can you do to respond to these behaviors with early positive interventions, thus “heading off” potential discipline problems? 

First, recognize that these kids are likely lonely because they are away from home, their families, and most if not all of their friends.  Making kids feel truly known for the individuals that they are, liked as they are, socially included, and physically and psychologically safe are your first priority.  Therefore, on the first days at camp, spend a little time with each of the kids in your care, one-on-one, getting to know them, their interests, their hobbies, their thoughts and feelings, all the things that may drive their behavior at camp.  Identify the campers that will require a little extra TLC from you.  Kids who are acting out may be engaging in attention seeking behavior . . . or they may be expressing anger at being sent to camp against their will.  Withdrawn kids may be experiencing fear of social rejection.  Provide these kids with the nurturing reassurance (i.e., TLC) that they need.   

You will likely also need to provide these unhappy campers with activities that are suited to their unique interests and perspectives.  Some kids simply need to be distracted: once they are kept busy with activities that interest them, they will forget all about their loneliness.  For these kids, find out their interests and refer them to camp activities that align with their interests.  If no camp activities align with their interests, are there things that you can do with the campers to accommodate their interests?  For example, if one of your unhappy campers likes to stargaze, and your camp does not offer any astronomy activities, perhaps you can spend a few evenings identifying constellations in the night sky with the camper.  Alternately, some kids have interests that, at first blush, appear destructive . . . but, with creative problem solving, can be turned into constructive interests.  For example, you could channel a camper’s interest in tearing things apart (things like your alarm clock, part of the mess hall entry railing, etc.) into an interest in discovering how things work.  You could present activities on electrical current, how to build a clock, how to build decking, etc.   

Your goal is to catch the early signs of unhappy campers, offer extra TLC, and create positive interventions (as noted above) before the unhappy campers’ behaviors become a problem that requires negative interventions (i.e., time outs, denials of benefits, etc.)

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