Kids’ Big Fears, Part II

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.

How to help campers deal with their fear of death.

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.

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Related posts:

  1. Kids’ Big Fears: Part I
  2. Sensitive Subject
  3. Reevaluating the Camp, Part 2
  4. Am I Oversharing?
  5. Universal Vulnerabilities
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