Kids’ Big Fears, Part II

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.

Understanding Redirection

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

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 To learn more about Chris, visit

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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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