The catch in the woman’s voice and the emotional tone of her phone call suggested something terrible had happened. She told me that her sister–the mom of one of our campers–had died.
Most children have a normal yet profound fear of losing a parent or guardian.
I use the term “child” fairly loosely because that fear doesn’t go away on one’s 18th birthday. Some people might argue that it becomes more intense with age, consciously or unconsciously.
As youth-development professionals, we have a duty to equip staff members with the skills necessary to help young people cope with this fear, and sometimes work through the moments when it may be realized.
One of us (Scott) runs camps for children with serious medical issues, and for children affected by a parent’s cancer. In both situations, the fear of death is ever-present, and each child struggles with it differently.
However, these are not bereavement camps or therapeutic recreation programs. The goal of the programs is to deliver traditional summer camp as an experience where kids develop community, learn important life skills, and create life-long connections and support.
And although the average camp counselor is not a mental-health professional, there are several concepts that can help counselors and other frontline staff members become better prepared to help children navigate their fear of death.
Probably the most important accomplishment for all camp leaders is to create trusting relationships and acceptance between the campers and themselves.
There are at least five core practices that reliably build trust:
• Being interested
• Listening without judgment
• Having patience
• Sidestepping favoritism
• Understanding redirection.
When staff members embrace these practices, even death can feel less scary.
Showing Genuine Interest
Being interested is sometimes a challenge because campers and staff members are at different developmental levels. Consequently, campers engage in experiences their adult caregivers may have difficulty being interested in or even understanding.
Silly Bandz, Justin Beiber, and skinny jeans are great examples of what some of our youngest campers, oldest campers, and even some staff members, respectively, are into. Frankly, we’re not interested in any of these things. And that’s the just tip of the youth-culture iceberg.
Like all youth-development professionals, we sometimes need to make an effort to be interested and show it, lest we create an immediate divide.
We don’t need to wear Silly Bandz or rock The Biebs on our playlist or wear skinny jeans (yikes!), but we do need to be engaged enough to know these things are important to the young people we serve.
In order to show genuine interest, even in things not intrinsically interesting to them, staff members must pay attention to young people’s dress, slang, and media.
They must also learn to ask open-ended questions, commit to hanging out with campers during free time or for extended program times, and be mentally present when they are with children.
Listening Without Judgment
Being interested is also about truly listening, and without judgment. Based on comments we hear all summer, this is a difficult skill to master.
For example: “That kid has ADHD.”
Whether we have the degree and the relevant training to make that diagnosis or not, we no doubt make some initial judgments about a child when we hear that statement. And we probably make some behavioral assumptions (i.e., off the wall, fidgety, unable to listen) or emotional/psychological assumptions (i.e., crazy, impulsive, struggling academically).
The challenging part about truly listening is not to deny these assumptions exist, but to recognize when they are happening and to let them go. We should wait in order to know this child rather than label him or her with a stereotype.
The next important component of showing genuine interest is practicing all the non-verbal skills associated with truly listening.
Everything matters, from simple smiling (or other appropriate facial reactions) to eye contact and nodding, to body position, gestures, and haptics (physical contact).
Examples of effective non-verbal communication–each of which contributes to listening without judgment–include:
• Leaning in toward the person to whom we are listening
• Nodding slightly to acknowledge we have heard what the person is saying
• Lowering our head and gaze when hearing something difficult
• Putting a comforting hand on the other person’s shoulder or upper-back
• Matching the gait and speed of the person we’re walking with
• Avoiding glances at clocks, watches, or other people
• Avoiding interruptions, especially to talk about ourself or an association we just had.
Consider, too, how to respond. When children are dealing with sensitive issues such as their fears, they may simply want to be heard and have their feelings validated. Turning a listening session into a problem-solving session will not necessarily meet children’s needs.
Teach staff members to say things like, “That sounds hard” or “I know that’s a struggle” or “You’re describing a real challenge.”
That brand of genuine empathy is not only a wonderful prelude to a deeper conversation but also sometimes the only thing a person needs to hear to feel better.
If young people are looking for help solving a problem, they will ask for it or otherwise lead the conversation in that direction. When we learn to stop after empathic statements such as those above, we are truly listening. We can support and validate another person’s feelings and share our common humanity.
Finally, staff members also need to develop comfort with conversational silence. When a child says something that is intense or moving, most people will feel uncomfortable. However, when a profound comment is made, both the speaker and the listener have an opportunity to reflect.
Rather than allow staff to blurt out a series of awkward verbal attempts designed to diminish this discomfort, teach the members to resist their instinct to fill the silence. Silence creates room for children to experience their feelings.
Part of a practical approach to supporting kids coping with the fear of death is to create an environment of acceptance. One of the most important aspects of that environment is patience, and being patient is not always easy.
Real patience, especially in the face of others’ challenging behavior, is grounded in one simple truth: Every action has a cause.
If we can teach staff members to accept and understand that every behavioral choice has a reason behind it, then we are well on our way to teaching real patience. Being patient–even if we cannot readily identify or understand the reasons–will help cultivate an environment of acceptance.
In staff-training workshops, we often remind members that all behavior makes sense to the actor. That alone helps cultivate patience, as do the simple strategies of slowing down one’s breathing, reflecting before talking, consulting with a colleague, using time off wisely, eating and sleeping well, and–for some staff members–nurturing the spiritual side.
There is no way to maintain perfect equilibrium when faced with something scary, including death. There are, however, practices that allow the staff and campers to experience fear without decompensating.
These practices are based on the simple notion that kids need to feel accepted and understood. Showing genuine interest, listening without judgment, and remaining patient are all effective ways to promote this understanding.
To truly establish an environment of acceptance, we also have to confront favoritism. Favoritism erodes acceptance.
When staff members play favorites, children feel excluded.
However, staff members are done a disservice if they are told, “We don’t have favorites at camp.” That is simply not true. It is natural and should be expected that we will be a better match with some kids than with others. We will like some kids better.
The important part about understanding favoritism is not denying its existence, but recognizing and naming the feeling when we do feel more positively toward certain people. Then, we must have the courage and sophistication to change any behaviors based on that feeling.
From simple choices like where we sit at meals to more challenging behaviors like engaging individuals in conflict, our actions are the key here. A youth-development professional understands the distinction between having favorites, which is normal, and playing favorites, which is socially corrosive.
The staff’s commitment to dealing honestly with favoritism will have a direct impact on whether kids feel accepted and safe at your camp.
Dealing skillfully with favoritism is especially important for any child coping with the recent or imminent death of a loved one. It’s easy for this sad circumstance to tug at our hearts and cloud our judgment about professional boundaries.
Staff must be well-trained to recognize how sympathy, sadness, or even rescue fantasies tempt favoritism for a child enduring a particularly difficult time.
Redirection is a technique that normalizes fear, but prevents it from becoming chronic. Naturally, we don’t want kids to become pre-occupied with fears of death, homesickness, teasing, sexuality, or anything else.
Ruminating on anything can be taxing on a person’s mental health, so one of the best ways to handle uncomfortable (but normal) emotions is to experience the feelings, acknowledge they are real, create goals to work through them, and then let them go from time to time.
Letting strong, difficult emotions go for a while is not about escaping or being unrealistically optimistic. It’s about regulating that energy by redirecting it toward something positive and productive.
At camp, that means athletic competitions, arts and crafts projects, group games, songs, special events, and all of the other wonderful programming we create.
Being able to redirect our energy–and teaching children to redirect theirs–also helps everyone keep a healthy perspective on life. It is normal to have strong feelings and fears related to death. Fear of the unknown is normal, and the death of a loved one usually feels unbearably sad. And death is part of life.
Connecting With Professionals
Staff members at summer programs also can help children cope with their fears of death by establishing and encouraging connections to mental-health professionals. This can take many forms, depending on the camp’s resources and mission.
Some camps have a budget to include a mental-health professional on staff; other camps have a psychologist or clinical social worker on retainer or at least on-call; and still others have a list of talented local professionals whom they consult periodically.
At the very least, directors need to know where to go for help if a staff member is struggling to help a camper, or a child’s needs have exceeded the resources that the camp can provide. Enlisting the help of a licensed mental-health professional at this point is the most caring and ethical thing to do.
A professional can also guide the camp and the family in coordinating the supports and opportunities provided. Even decisions about whether to stay at camp–or for how long–can be complex when a family member has a terminal illness. Clinicians not only support directors, parents, and children in times of need, but help them make decisions that provide support in the future.
Setting An Example
We cannot protect children from death, nor can we protect them from the pitfalls and unfairness of life. We can, however, articulate what we are grateful for and set a positive example in how we live our own lives.
We can also train ourselves and staff members to help children develop healthy coping skills in a safe, loving, and accepting environment. Simply by providing the supportive community that all children need, we can help them cope with this and other fears effectively, both now and later in life.
As a counselor and I sat in the room with that teenage girl as she heard the news of her mother’s death, the crushing despair of the situation sucked the wind out of me.
Then the girl said something for which I was unprepared but joyful to hear: “I think I want to stay at camp. At camp I am surrounded by people who get it. They are my family.”
Scott Arizala is a leading expert, trainer, and consultant in summer camp. He is the Camp Director for Dragonfly Forest, a camp for children with serious illnesses, and for Camp Kesem, a national organization for children whose parents have cancer. He is the author of the best-selling book, S’more Than Camp. To learn more about Scott, visit TheCampCounselor.com.
Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist and professional educator for camps, schools, and youth programs worldwide. He is the co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook, the host of the DVD-CD set, The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, and the co-founder of ExpertOnlineTraining.com. To learn more about Chris, visit CampSpirit.com.