Problem Behavior at Camp

Our contemporary culture interprets antisocial, incompatible and abrasive behavior from a different perspective than in the “good old days” when conformity and a clear differentiation between acceptable and unacceptable behavior was more clearly defined.

Some of the factors include the permissiveness and over-indulgence of some parents with their children in an affluent society, the possible use of drugs and alcohol, and other modern cultural problems.

The trick is determining the difference between destructive and constructive behavior, and when this behavior should be tolerated (overlooked and endured), treated (by competent and trained senior staff) or terminated (by removing the camper or staff member from the camp).

Pre-camp staff orientation must present the appropriate communication procedures for immediately reporting problematic behavior of both campers and colleagues to the administration.

Problematic behavior should be evaluated and discussed with those who have allegedly committed it as well as those who have knowledge of it in order to ensure that the phrase, “We didn’t know about it,” cannot compromise the health, safety and security of the camp.

Constructive discussion with those involved, incorporating the circumstances of the alleged behavior, must be reviewed and constructively acted upon by the camp administration.

If the problematic behavior of the camper or staff is not communicated to the administrators by the previously established procedures and dealt with appropriately, then parents, attorneys, insurance companies and official outside agencies may become directly involved with the camp administration.


Acting out or withdrawn behavior by some campers is not new. Some campers do demonstrate unconventional behavior, like suspect language, gestures, practical jokes, aggressive behavior and bullying.

Questionable behavior from the camper’s previous 10 months at home may be in evidence before camp. Parents, though they may not readily admit it, are usually aware of their child’s ability to function within a group situation, be it in an acceptable or unacceptable manner. Keep in mind that parents can love but not actually know about their children’s behavior outside of the home.

Personality and social questionnaires completed by parents often do not objectively depict or reflect their children’s behavior. Critical questions about atypical behavior are vaguely answered or left blank — especially questions about physical, psychological, social and intellectual problems and the ongoing treatment of them.

Some children are sent to camp because their parents want to take a vacation or feel that the camp will provide some kind of instant behavioral cure.

Some parents have “rescue fantasies” about how their children’s behavior will be significantly improved in four to eight weeks — something which, unfortunately, has not been accomplished at home within the past 10 months, or 10 years for that matter.

As a former camp director and as a psychologist, it’s been my experience that — depending upon the degree of frequency, intensity and duration of unacceptable behavior — it must be constantly reviewed and acted upon for the benefit of the camp community. Ignoring it or hoping it will take care of itself usually spells trouble.

The staff’s availability to “treat” campers is difficult because of their ongoing responsibilities in supervising their campers and their own assignments in the daily program.

Allowing special considerations by excessive parental visits to camp and telephone calls to and from the camper may introduce additional problems for the camper and from peers and staff.

It is critical that if some type of constructive treatment plan is initiated by a competent senior staff member who has had formal training and supervision in appropriate counseling techniques, rather than a rescue fantasy-orientated novice. He or she must become therapeutically involved with the camper only after parental consent in writing is received.

Referral to a camp psychologist/consultant in order to evaluate a camper’s behavior, with parental permission, is often helpful in assisting the camp director’s options and final discussion.

Termination of a camper for the general welfare of the camp community may have to be implemented. Initially, this will have a painful and detrimental effect on campers and their parents.

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