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Learning to Deal: How Camps & Teen Programs Teach Kids to Cope

For any young person, whether they are a child or adolescent, early encounters with any type of adversity can seem insurmountable and overwhelming. And this makes sense – without the framework of past experience, it can be difficult for a child or teen to properly contextualize whatever obstacle they are facing, or to approach it with the confidence that ultimately they will reach a resolution. Whether the problem is social or academic, a child may feel that they simply don’t have the answers, and may not be receptive to their parents’ advice, either because they perceive it as “outdated” or because children and teens are often, almost on principle, not receptive to their parents’ advice.

The New York Times recently published an article that discusses research that is currently being conducted with high school freshmen in America. This research, which focuses on providing the teens with the ability to cope with the stresses of high school, is three-fold: initially, the students read a scientific article that suggests that personalities can change over time; then, they read advice about dealing with high-school conflicts written by high-school seniors; finally, they are asked to write their own encouraging advice to younger students. Thus far, the results of the research have been notable. Providing students with a framework to contextualize their stress, and advice from older students about how they managed, allowed them to develop the coping mechanisms needed to succeed in high school.

When reading this article, I immediately thought of camp’s version of mentorship – Camp Brothers and Camp Sisters. While the various stresses that campers face are not all the same as those faced by high-school students, many young campers face stresses nonetheless. They are away from home for the first time, navigating a social sphere without their parents’ guidance or support. Perhaps they miss home, perhaps they are worried about struggling in a certain activity, or perhaps they are having trouble making friends or feel they are not fitting in. An older “Camp Sibling”, provides each child with a peer and mentor – someone who may have encountered the very same struggles just a few years earlier, and someone who is willing to share advice about the way they dealt with their issues.

Camp Siblings allow young campers to approach their summer with a degree of confidence – if they see their older Camp Sibling thriving, they may believe that they too will thrive with the advice of their older mentor. This confidence, and the presence of a built-in older friend, allows children to feel less overwhelmed, and thus provides them with a greater ability to cope when they are faced with difficult situations. Over the course of several summers, this ultimately translates into a continuity of mentorship and tradition of support: when younger campers grow into the role of the older Camp Siblings, they provide advice based on their own experiences, as well as advice they received from their Camp Sibling before them.

On teen programs – whether they are academic, adventure/travel, service or enrichment – participants generally will not be on a trip with former participants in the same way that younger campers are paired with older campers. However, students do have the built-in support structure provided by other participants, and the guidance of older trip/group leaders. Because these students are all on the same program together, experiencing the same challenges, obstacles, and difficulties, they will often band together and help each other cope with the situation. And when they are faced with a challenge, a well-trained and caring leader will be in a position to act as a role model and help them overcome any adversity they may face.

Encountering adversity is an inevitable and beneficial aspect to childhood and adolescence – ultimately, these experiences build resilience and inform the way children and teens will respond to adversity throughout their lives. However, giving students the support needed to cope with difficult situations is a vital aspect to making sure that these experiences ultimately end up having a positive outcome. The built-in support structures both at camp and on teen programs allow children and teens to encounter adversity in an environment that allows for positive development, and to ultimately develop the coping skills that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

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