Helping Children Work Through Anxiety At Camp

I accomplished two things last week.

First, I finished reading one of the most insightful and helpful books I’ve read in a long time.  It’s called, “The Coddling of the American Mind”.  You’ve maybe heard of it, as the authors, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, have been discussing their thoughts on social media for a number of years now. The book was published in 2018 after their article in The Atlantic got a lot of attention a few years earlier. I read it because I was interested in hearing their thoughts about life on college campuses, both because we work with 100 college students every summer and because I’m raising two daughters who will one day be young adults themselves!  

The second thing I did was take a 2-day training with Eli Liebowitz at the Yale Child Study Center. I wrote about his SPACE program in a previous blog and was so interested in his theory and process that I wanted to learn how to put it into practice myself.  As a reminder, Dr. Leibowitz has created a way for clinicians to work with the PARENTS of kids who are anxious in an effort to help them teach their children that they have the ability to do hard things, that they can work through discomfort – without parents “accommodating” them by removing the stressors or coming to their aid.  The idea is that we can help parents step back so that their children understand their own resilience. It’s powerful and it works!  

Insights from “The Coddling of the American Mind” and the SPACE Program

So, what do these two accomplishments have in common, and what do they have to do with camp?  Well, first, I love sharing resources with our Akeela community so I’d urge you to explore both the book and the SPACE program. Also, I’m excited to bring what I’ve learned to our campers and staff this summer.  The biggest overlap for me is the idea that when things make us feel uncomfortable, we are not necessarily unsafe or in any real danger.  There is what Haidt and Lukianoff call the “Great Untruth” of “safetyism” that is pervasive on college campuses and, I would argue, is also spreading out into the general public, including our middle and high schools. They suggest that many people now believe this: “What doesn’t kill me makes me weaker”….a (faulty) belief that we need to avoid all pain and any POTENTIAL struggle.  

Another “untruth” from the book is “Always trust your feelings” without challenging or questioning them. The authors explain that there is an underlying sense that we need to act on our FEELINGS without pause. “Trusting your gut” is fine and serves a purpose, but both of these untruths also mean that a large number of people – and I’m most worried about our teens and young adults here – are missing out on GROWTH opportunities.  Blindly following your feelings rather than questioning the thoughts and data that might accompany those emotions can be unwise and unhelpful. If we don’t face challenges or take a chance, we will never learn or stretch — and that is concerning. If we allow our child to sleep next to us every night because he is afraid of the dark, we are not giving him the chance to develop a belief in himself that he can be safe on his own. If we allow our child to eat by herself in the nurse’s office every day because she’s worried that someone will tease her in the cafeteria, we are validating her belief/thought that she can’t tolerate discomfort of something that hasn’t even happened yet … and thus might miss out on making a friend.

Encouraging Growth Through Discomfort at Camp

One of the suggestions at the end of “Coddling” is that parents should send their children to camp. Of course! Camp is where we challenge campers to stretch their comfort zones. Parents often ask me on our initial call about camp, “What do you recommend when a child doesn’t want to go to camp because he’s never done it before?” And I always say the same thing, “MOST children – especially children who struggle socially and with anxiety – do not want to do something new.  It’s hard and it takes work … AND with guidance and managed expectations, most kids are able to push through that initial fear and are able to truly thrive at camp.” What a gift to be able to give to children: the ability to help them learn that they have what it takes to work through something uncomfortable, and to come out the other side of those feelings with a sense of accomplishment and pride, stronger and more resilient for the experience. It’s honestly the best part of what we do at camp.  

Akeela’s Commitment to Helping Children Thrive at Camp

A few takeaways that we’ll be implementing at camp this summer:

  • We will continue to encourage our campers and staff to recognize the growth potential in doing things that make them uncomfortable: things they are scared to try, things that they think they may not be good at, things they’ve never done before — of course without ever compromising their physical or emotional safety.
  • We will use language like this, “I know you’re worried about trying this and I’m 100% confident that you have what it takes to do it.”
  • We will not “over-accommodate” campers or staff who are feeling anxious about something.  Instead, we will explain how confident we are that they can do it and will give them space and support they need to succeed.  

While none of this is really NEW to us at Akeela, it’s always nice to be reminded how important camp is.  We believe that camp is one of the best ways to teach kids (and staff) the skills they need to become resilient. We can’t wait to get back to work this summer!

One Response to “Helping Children Work Through Anxiety At Camp”

  1. Avatar for Anne-Marie Vaduva
    Anne-Marie Vaduva

    This is very helpful, I hope my child will have the opportunity to experience Camp Akeela in the coming year or two. What if as a teacher or parent or staff member, you see that the child has lagging skills, and needs more time to mature physically or emotionally in order to succeed at something? How do you encourage based on realistic expectations of where the child is at developmentally? Or if they have other conditions like OCD? Does Camp Akeela staff have the training to recognize what kids are developmentally able to do?

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