Psychologist Dr. Tracy Brenner, “The Camp Counselor,” is working with Maine Camp Experience on the topic of mental health in a camp-related context. She is incredibly excited to support camps, campers, camp staff, and parents to promote social emotional development, resilience, and growth for all. We are grateful to Laurie Kaidan from Maine Camp Experience for introducing us to Dr. Tracy and allowing us to share her very helpful tips.
Hi Parents! Yes, I was a camper (that’s me on the right!)… and one who was quite homesick during her first summer. Yet even with those tearful moments of missing home and trips to the infirmary with “stomach aches,” I loved camp. In some ways, that experience of having struggled through homesickness affirms why as a psychologist, I believe in camp. Let me explain:
We all send our children to camp with hopes of them having fun, making friends, being outside and getting off screens. I certainly hope my son’s experience checks those boxes this summer. But the developmental benefits of camp go far beyond making friends and having fun. Sleepaway camp provides a unique landscape for children to build independence, self esteem and, most of all, resilience. In order to become resilient—having the capacity to overcome or adapt to challenges—we need to have challenging experiences. With no obstacles or failure, we can’t become more resilient. And that’s what’s so great about camp: There are endless opportunities to be challenged each day. Your child will fall when trying to get up on one waterski, just miss reaching the top of the rock wall or strikeout in baseball. But when children respond to those failures by trying again, they build resilience.
Camps teach kids to do hard things. I’m sure we all hope our kids come out of the summer with a new skill or two, but I think the most important ones they’ll develop relate to emotions. Children will miss home, there may be conflict with friends and they may be disappointed when they don’t get the part they wanted in the play. While these disappointments sting, they are also opportunities for building emotional resilience and distress tolerance (or our ability to sit with discomfort). At camp, children will learn to sit with big feelings, they will independently seek out other people for support, they will learn that they can have a hard moment and still have fun at the same time. Children will learn that they can cope, and they can cope without a parent there to rescue them from their discomfort. When kids can internalize that they managed something on their own, without needing a parent to rescue them, it’s a major boost for self esteem.
I like to think of camp as a beautiful bubble, protected from the outside world, void of technology and free from pressures that home, school or competitive sports may bring. In the wilderness, away from iPhones and Xboxes, kids truly connect to one another, find new depths of friendship, and report that “camp is where I can be the real me.” This sacred space has never been more valuable than it is today.
Do you know what else is not floating in the camp bubble? Parents. There are no parents to socially engineer activities, sports rosters or playdates. Kids navigate camp’s social world on their own and often reap the benefits. Who hasn’t heard a child say “my camp friends are my best friends?” There are no parents to attempt to prevent challenges or swoop in to rescue a child from an uncomfortable experience. This process, known as snowplow parenting (where parents clear the way of potential obstacles for their children) is the biggest threat to resilience and child development. When the bubble gets penetrated, “awayness” is compromised, and the social-emotional benefits are reduced. When a parent insists that a child be in the same bunk as his best friend, the child never has the chance to prove to himself that he can make new friends in a new environment by himself. When a parent calls the director to make sure that a child has the preferred activities on her schedule, the child never has a chance to learn about her hidden talent for animation. And, when a parent swoops in to resolve complaints in their child’s letter, that child never learns to problem solve on his or her own.
So, in order to preserve the camp bubble, I’m asking parents to consider a seismic mental shift: To sit with uncertainty; to relinquish control; and to appreciate the value in letting our kids do hard things.