How We Can Help Our Anxious Teens Live Heroic Lives

How We Can Help Our Anxious Teens Live Heroic Lives

Teen taking a risk amongst friends at Odyssey Teen Camp

There seem to be more teenagers than ever before living with a debilitating degree of anxiety. A study by the National Institute of Health recently showed that one in three teenagers will experience an anxiety disorder, and anxiety is now considered the number one mental health problem in the U.S.

I’m sure there’s a long list of things that contribute to teenagers feeling so anxious including not enough sleep, too much time staring at screens, not enough exercise, social media, high expectations to achieve, puberty, genetics, poor diets, and the fact that our world seems pretty scary, but I think the biggest cause of social anxiety is teenagers’ fears of being judged, embarrassed, and ridiculed.

The courage to live bigger

Most of the teenagers who come to camp with a diagnosis of social anxiety are some of my favorite people. They are sweet, sensitive, kind and introspective. Unfortunately, they are also way too concerned with what they imagine other people might think about them. These worries about social approval and all the self-consciousness that comes with it can make them stop doing all the things that they really want to do, including making friends, trying new things, relaxing and being themselves. Their lives become a lot smaller at a time when they should become bigger. How can we help them find the courage to take the kinds of calculated risks that will help them discover more about themselves? How can we help them connect more with others and begin creating the lives they want to create?

 

I know it can feel bleak when anxiety seems to be stopping our teens in their tracks, but I also know that social anxiety can be overcome, and I’ve been watching teenagers do it at camp for a long time. I’ve heard that anxiety is the gap between the present and the future, and at camp, we are able to create a space where teens can relax and live more in the present.

A safe container

When teenagers recognize they are not being judged and that it’s perfectly o.k. to sometimes feel confused, insecure, clueless, and make mistakes without being put down or humiliated, it frees them to show who they really are. When they get that others are there to support them with kindness, friendship, and love, they can let go of many of their defenses, share their gifts, choose freedom over safety, love over fear, and connection over isolation.

I’m sure that convincing socially anxious teens to come to camp for the first time can be quite a challenge. I’ll write my next blog with some ideas about that, but if you want to talk about it, you can join our Facebook Group to support parents of teens with anxiety, or reach out to me directly, maybe I can help.

Thanks,

Adam

How Housing Works at OTC for Transgender Campers

How Housing Works at OTC for Transgender Campers

Transgender camper in front of cabin

Just as gender identity can feel complicated, housing at camp for transgender and gender diverse teens can feel that way as well. I remember ten years ago when the first openly transgender kids starting coming to camp everyone’s big question was, “where are we going to house them?”

Looking back, our concerns seem a little silly and maybe overblown, but for those trans and genderqueer teens (and their parents), coming to a camp for the first time, safe housing is definitely something on their minds.

As a camp with many trans and non binary teens, it’s crucial to create the safest space we can. Housing, bathrooms, programs and the culture we create all play a role in that. I may never understand everything about gender, but by hiring a staff that includes plenty of terrific gender diverse counselors, we can ensure that every camper is respected, included, and celebrated at camp.

Cabins that feel “gender-less”

Today many camps are offering some gender-neutral cabins. Although we have more teens who identify outside the gender binary than most camps, right now we do not offer gender-neutral cabins. If campers expressed a desire to have gender-neutral cabins we would try to accommodate them, but they have not. I can see the pluses in offering gender-neutral cabins, but I also think having cabins separate from our binary cabins (traditional boys and girls cabins), could create a sense of “othering,” and emphasize gender in a way that might make a bigger deal out of it than it has to be.

A trans male camper who has been coming to camp for many years, who stays in a “girls” cabin told me his reasons for this are because that’s where his friends are, but he also says that the counselors in the “girls” cabins have consistently done a great job creating cabins that feel “gender-less,” where there are no gendered activities that make him feel uncomfortable. He feels that our AFAB (assigned female at birth), cabins feel as if they are gender-neutral because of the lack of emphasis on gender, and also because of the number of other trans campers and counselors living there.

A new perspective

I used to tell parents of AFAB teens who were either transitioning or questioning their gender identity that they might feel more comfortable in a girls cabin. I said that because I saw some trans boys at camp wearing hoodies and binders on very hot days and I thought they might be more comfortable in a girls cabin. I don’t say that anymore because I have seen AFAB teens do just fine in an AMAB cabin. So much of this decision depends on the teenager themselves and where they are in their gender journey. It’s a process, it’s an experiment, it’s a dance and when camper needs to switch into a cabin they feel more comfortable in, it’s never a problem.

There is a gender revolution going on, and ideas around gender are changing quickly. I don’t think there are necessarily any experts on the subject, nor is there one right way to do things.

Today at Odyssey we have girls cabins and boys cabins and campers can choose whichever they most identify with. They can also move from one cabin to another if that’s what feels best, (and teens do it pretty often). Everything is changing and I would not be surprised if the way we do housing at camp changes as well, but for now I think the more we can create gender-less spaces where everyone feels respected, accepted and celebrated for exactly who they are the better. 

Find out about Odyssey Teen Camp

A great place for teens to be exactly who they are in a community that celebrates diversity. 

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Top Ten Things I’ve Learned About 2e (Twice Exceptional) Teens

Top Ten Things I’ve Learned About 2e (Twice Exceptional) Teens

Adam Simon - Camp Director with a camper

Adam Simon, Camp Director with a camper at Odyssey Teen Camp

I’ve been learning about twice exceptionality (2e) from some moms whose 2e teens come to camp. They are great advocates for their own children and for all 2e kids. I’m particularly grateful to Kim Pine who wrote an informative post about her 2e son’s camp experience and Maratea Cantarella from Twice Exceptional Children’s Advocacy (TECA), who have shared a lot of wisdom with me.

Here are some things I’ve learned

1) 2e kids really exist and there are probably hundreds of thousands of them in the U.S. They are people with some kind of learning or neurological difference AND they are also gifted in some areas. Both exceptionalities can and do exist in a single person.

2) Whether they have ADHD, a specific learning disability or are on the autism spectrum, most have been through tough and sometimes traumatic experiences at school.

3) Many have been treated as outsiders and feel like they are different.

4) Like all teens, 2e kids are trying to understand themselves, searching for identity and  truth and meaning in their lives.

5) Many are grappling with their sexual identity and gender expression.

6) Like Kermit, who says it’s not easy being green, it’s not always easy being 2e.

7) 2e teens can be really hard on themselves – they tend to be perfectionists and have difficulty accepting that we all make mistakes and mess up sometimes.

8) The best thing we can do to help 2e teens is to provide opportunities for them to explore and express their gifts. When they succeed through sharing their strengths, it helps them feel better about themselves, which leads to more and more success.

9) Our camp is better with more diversity. This includes ethnic, racial, gender and neurological diversity

10) The 2e teens who have come to camp have brought a lot of laughter, creativity, empathy, sensitivity and wacky fun. They’ve made friends, been leaders, and made camp more interesting for everyone.

2e resources

If you would like to learn more about twice exceptionality or if you think your teen might be twice exceptional, here are some resources to check out:

 

  • http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/twiceexceptional.pdf
  • https://teca2e.org
  • https://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources-parents/twice-exceptional-students
  • https://www.sengifted.org/post/postma-shangri-la
The Dark Tunnel of Adolescent Evolution (Part 2): What Does “Staying in The Game” Look Like For Parents?

The Dark Tunnel of Adolescent Evolution (Part 2): What Does “Staying in The Game” Look Like For Parents?

 

As I continue my discussion in video 2 with therapist Amy Frisch, who has been leading groups for teenage girls for twenty years, Amy offers some great advice for parents (none of which will necessarily be easy to follow).

All the different parenting phases in our child's life depending on their age are hard, and here's the deal, it doesn't get easier.” - Amy FrischClick To Tweet

Staying in the game

Staying in the game as she says, can take many forms. The concept that we need to “listen more than we talk,” feels particularly important for all parents of teens, (and Directors of teen summer camps).

For several years at Odyssey Teen Camp I would invite certain adults who I thought had a lot of wisdom to share to come and speak to the teenagers. They were people I wanted to listen to.

I quickly realized teenagers were not all that interested in hearing what these people had to say. I would hear things like “that was so boring” after someone would give a talk I found inspirational, or campers would say, “that speaker was only interested in talking about themselves.”

Listening more than we talk

I’m pretty sure Amy’s advice for us to try to refrain from telling the teenagers in our lives all the things we know and offering our wise advice is probably a good idea.

It’s probably more helpful to tell them about our insecurities, anxieties, and some things we struggle with. That’s probably something they can identify with and may find interesting.

“Consciously Parenting Teens” Video Series

Here’s to listening, more than we talk. I hope you enjoy our short video above. If you haven’t opted-in to see the entire series, here’s the form again to subscribe.

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An invitation

And please do leave a comment below if you would like to add to this conversation. I would love to engage with you and hear your thoughts and stories.

– Adam

What Makes a Great Camp Counselor?

What Makes a Great Camp Counselor?

 

My friend Neil and I were talking about camp the other day and he said that when he was looking for a camp for his son years ago he only got to meet the camp Directors. While it may have been somewhat helpful, he knew that ultimately it would be his son’s counselors who were going to really  impact his son’s experience at camp.

What my friend said is true. As Director of Odyssey Teen Camp, I try my best to hire the forty or so most caring, mature, responsible, intelligent, kind, and fun people that I can. Then we come together for a week before the campers arrive to create a community based on kindness, inclusion, safety, cooperation, vulnerability, trust, and fun, which we can model for every teen who comes to camp.

“Ultimately our mission is to bombard every teen who comes with loving kindness.”

A camp counselor’s job is not easy. The days are long. At Odyssey, counselors not only have the job of creating a great culture in their cabin, they also lead all of our camp activities. For most counselors just getting to camp is not that easy and they have to arrange their lives to come and work in the Berkshires for five weeks for very little money.

Why do they do it?

They come work at camp because they want to help teenagers have fun and feel good about themselves. They know how confusing and hard it felt for them when they were teenagers to feel good about themselves and their world.

Many of them have an idea for the kind of support they could have used from someone who was maybe a few years older to help them navigate their way through middle and high school more gracefully, (and maybe even with more of a sense of humor). They very much want to be that person for our campers.

You would think it would be hard for a young person in their twenties to put their own needs on the back burner for five weeks and to make the needs of their campers their number one priority, but you would be surprised how many counselors do exactly that every summer.

Support is key

During staff training we try to give the counselors skills and tools that will help them be great counselors. We bring in some therapists who are great at helping teenagers, but ultimately staff training really starts the day the campers come. While camp is in session, we have an experienced team of therapists and leaders who help the counselors deal with whatever is coming up for their campers and often for themselves.

We all have things we need to figure out and ways we need to grow and that is certainly true of the young people who come to work at camp, but I am always amazed and grateful to see how good they are at a very tough job.

Sage advice from a veteran director

When I started camp an older Director told me that …

“The counselors are there for the kids and the Director is there for the counselor.”

At the time, I thought not me, I’m going to be there for everyone, and while I try my best and I do get to know certain campers better than others, he was right, the counselors play a key role in the campers’ experience.

The paradox

It’s hard to put into words what makes a great counselor. Sometimes I think that I know exactly what someone will be like as a counselor when I hire him, but the truth is that is not always the case. I think there is a paradox to most every quality in being a great camp counselor.

A counselor has to be willing to make the teens their number one priority, but they also have to take care of themselves sometimes so they do not get overly stressed or have “burnout.”

A counselor has to be hyper vigilant about camp rules and the safety of everyone at camp, but they also need to be able to relax and let some things slide.

A counselor needs to take the concerns of their campers very seriously, but they also need to not get too caught up in the drama that comes with the territory of working at a camp with 180 teenagers.

A counselor needs to plan for their activities and also know that things change all the time and they need to be flexible enough to go with the flow.

A counselor needs to want to help every teenager who comes to camp, and understand that they have their own limitations and will not always be able to reach every camper as well as they would like.

A great counselor needs to walk that fine line between being both a friend and support for their campers, while also being an authority presence who is ultimately in charge of each campers’ well being.

You can see why it is a difficult job. I feel grateful that so many young people want to take that challenge and come be counselors at camp. Ultimately I hire those people who I believe have the highest intentions, knowing that we will all have our challenges along the way, but those intentions can carry us a long way and help a lot of teenagers to have life changing experiences at camp.

Find out about Odyssey Teen Camp

A great place for teens to be exactly who they are in a community that celebrates diversity. 

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