Next Steps

My fifteen-year old granddaughter applied to become a counselor-in-training (CIT to the initiated) at the summer camp she loved and had attended as a camper for a number of years. She was filled with excitement and anxiety as the time of the interview approached, hoping she would qualify for something she so much wanted.

Speculating about questions she might be asked, her father suggested one. ”What would you do if one of the girls in the bunk has a melt-down and you have to help her while at the same time having to be responsible for the other children in the bunk?” Obviously somewhat shaken by such a possibility, in typically adolescent fashion she was dismissive of the question, saying this could not possibly happen because a CIT is never left alone with a bunk of children.

Much to her chagrin, she reported after the interview that she had been asked exactly that question. Not wanting to say how she had answered, she nevertheless reported that she would try to have the other girls help comfort the one who was upset. Perhaps she was remembering her own first camp experience having said at the time, that some children missed their parents and needed help in making friends so they wouldn’t be lonely.

The seeming hypothetical question is a challenging one for teachers as well as camp counselors. Of course, at camp there is the added challenge of homesickness, especially for children who might be experiencing their first experience away from home and overnight separations from their parents. Not to mention a changed environment possibly from city to country bringing unusual sounds and creatures.

The impact of peers on an upset child is interesting to note (if you’re not the one who has to deal with the situation.) With very young children a kind of contagion takes place in which one child’s upset infects the others. In a group you can see children one by one trying to control themselves but then breaking down in tears.

I have seen that the teacher, or adult in charge, can defuse the situation before the crying spreads by explaining to the others that the upset child is missing her mommy, everyone misses their mommies sometimes, but that she will feel better soon. Talking about and explaining what is happening in a matter-of-fact way has a reassuring effect and helps children feel that nothing terrible is happening. Trying to ignore the upset has the opposite effect.

On the other hand, one can also see the opposite reaction in which children themselves try to comfort the crying child. I have seen in nursery school groups, children bringing toys over to a crying child to make him feel better or trying to put an arm around the child for comfort. Children are at different stages developmentally in the way they handle separation – when it is safe emotionally to empathize and reassure another or when one’s own feelings are still too close to the surface.

Such upsets in older children may have meanings other than homesickness, especially in a camp situation where peer relationships can loom larger. Alliances between children may form, leading others to feel left out. Insecurities with which children may be struggling can loom larger in an environment that does not feel protective. Feelings may be hurt more easily when children are living together.

Thinking about what it may be like to take the next step from being a camper to a counselor in training, it would seem to have some resemblance to the earlier step of feeling like crying but instead comforting the one who does. Seems like a big step and may explain the “in-training” before counselor.

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