How My Twice Exceptional Teen Became a Happy Camper

How My Twice Exceptional Teen Became a Happy Camper

A mom recently wrote about her son Fen’s experience at camp. He’s been coming to OTC for the past five years. Fen is one of the most original, interesting and hilarious campers who has come to camp. He’s not always the easiest and when he first came to camp he seemed to want to go home on a pretty regular basis, but I’m glad he stayed because he’s made our camp better every summer.

Fen’s mom says our camp is perfect for a 2e kid. While I’m not an expert on twice-exceptional people, the teens who have come to camp whose parents have told me are “twice-exceptional” have done really well. I was struck when Fen’s mom  wrote, “most camps are designed to produce an outcome. He needed freedom.” I think the only outcome we ever shoot for at camp is to help kids be themselves, have fun, maybe even find a little joy and laughter.

 

“OTC was a refuge for our twice exceptional son”

I don’t really know how to explain the refuge that Odyssey Teen Camp is for our twice exceptional son. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a smart kid and makes his way in life, but it’s a rough path with lots of bumps in the road. If you know and love a 2e kid, you know they aren’t typical. They don’t fit easily into the categories of special ed, gifted ed or gen ed. Unless you’re lucky enough to have them in a school made for this population, you know they spend a great majority of their time in school and activities making it work, being a round peg in a square hole.

At OTC, our 2e child fit perfectly by just being who he is, and the gift that is to him and our family is hard to articulate.

“Most camps are designed to produce an outcome”

Let me start by telling you we’d tried a variety of camps for him over the years. He’s attended sleepover, day, sports, comedy and drama camps as well as after school classes.. Results varied, but the theme throughout was typically a forced experience our kid endured. Most camps are designed to produce an outcome; a better athlete, actor or computer skills. These are great for many kids, but ours had a hard time in these more rigid organized environments that focus on a skill. So much of a 2e kid’s life is work, he needed freedom. He also typically struggled in social settings because intricacies of a group dynamic could overwhelm him. He needed a place he could be completely authentic, to proudly be his quirky unconventional self with no judgement. If past experience proved true for us, that seemed unlikely.

“it’s a place full of quirky kids”

The summer before our son went to high school, his college-aged sister mentioned a summer camp her friend had attended and worked at for many years. She thought it would be a good fit for her little brother. “Mom,” she said, “it’s a place full of quirky kids.” She told me it wasn’t therapeutic, not themed or skills based and not intentionally for 2e kids… just a place where differences were celebrated, judgement was non-existent and kids were told to be “exactly who they are.”

If you’re the parent of a twice exceptional kid like me, you might be as skeptical as I was. Be exactly who they are isn’t something you’re used to hearing. Raising a 2e kid means a lot of time spent listening to the ways your child is the squeaky wheel and all the ways your child can adjust their true selves to fit into school, enrichment programs, teams, etc. To think there’s a place where they can just “be” seems suspect. I needed to investigate.

I called my daughter’s friend. She knew our son and wholeheartedly thought he’d love OTC. When I said that I didn’t think he’d like a full day of activities, she mentioned an afternoon class she’d taught called Cloud Watching because she said, “some kids need to lay on the lawn and stare at the sky for an hour.” I mentioned he sometimes had trouble maneuvering social situations, she assured me this was rarely an issue at OTC for any kid.

“I called OTC’s director… I held nothing back”

I called Adam Simon, OTC’s director. I honestly described the ins and outs of our son’s personality. His intensities, overexcitabilities, and anxiety. His disabling fear of insects and propensity for only eating peanut butter related food. I said he could be argumentative, anxious, stubborn and inflexible. I also shared his humor, kindness, wit and ability to speak with boundless passion about subjects he cherished. I held nothing back. As the phone call came to an end I waited to hear what I had been conditioned to hear, pause and hesitation. I waited to hear the ways this “might” work or that this probably would be a challenge, or a flat out no. But, if memory serves me Adam barely skipped a beat and said he couldn’t wait to meet our son. We signed him up.

I don’t know how Adam and his amazing staff manage to unite and empower a diverse group of teens who by the end of camp seem to radiate connection and happiness. OTC is, in my opinion, a rare opportunity for teens in our culture. A place where nothing more is required than to be real, be good and just be. Don’t get me wrong, there seems to be plenty of opportunity to learn some cool skills and there are plenty of activities, it’s just that the main focus is on being a kid, not planning for college or adulthood. OTC campers fully embrace the moment that is being a teenager, the opportunity to be totally goofy, filled with energetic emotion, and completely real.

“He got to be exactly who he is, and that, for a 2e kid is a unique & beautiful thing.”

At OTC our guy swims in all of his clothes, takes classes on things like Yoga, Food & Music and Protesting. He does stand up comedy and had a plastic skeleton for a cabin-mate. He got totally homesick, wanted to leave and was encouraged and reassured to stay by his amazing pod leaders. He was appreciated and encouraged by camp staff to grow as a person, conquer his fears and try new things. He acted weird, dressed like a banana, sang songs, made friends, and most importantly felt completely included in a community where everyone is celebrated. He got to be exactly who he is, and that, for a 2e kid is a unique & beautiful thing.

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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Social Anxiety and Shyness as an Invitation to The Great Unknown

Social Anxiety and Shyness as an Invitation to The Great Unknown

Girl sitting on her camp bed journaling

Every month I receive calls from concerned parents whose teenagers have been diagnosed with social anxiety. They see their teenager spending too much time alone, having trouble making friends, seeming depressed, etc. It’s easy to understand why parents are very worried. I’ve struggled with anxiety most of my life, and I know it can feel painful and constricting to live with. However, when teens diagnosed with social anxiety spend time at camp, it’s evident these wonderful, kind, sensitive, vulnerable, and generally very shy teenagers can find their way.

I’ve read that social anxiety is a commonly diagnosed disorder and 15 million people suffer from it, which makes it the third most common mental health disorder. Social anxiety is characterized by fear of being rejected, criticized, judged, or being perceived unfavorably. It’s a fear of humiliation or embarrassment. Not surprisingly social anxiety becomes more prevalent with the onset of puberty and the powerful physical and emotional changes that come with it. While social anxiety can feel overwhelming, and even debilitating, it seems very human to me.

I’m pretty sure teenagers have always been shy and plenty anxious. They are experiencing so many new and unexpected desires, emotions, and physical changes, it is completely natural to feel confused, awkward, helpless, and hence, anxious. Teens today live in a world where what they do and say can be instantly seen via social media to a vast and sometimes unforgiving audience, it must feel very different than when I was a teen, fifty years ago.

David Whyte, the wonderful poet, said that …

“Shyness is the sense of a great unknown, suddenly about to be known. It is the exquisite and vulnerable frontier between what we think is possible and what we think we deserve.”

I remember reading this passage from a book, the main character is reminiscing about his past (paraphrasing) “When I was a teenager I felt like I was on fire. I remember there were plenty of kids who could happily help me let that fire get out of control, and there were plenty of adults who seemed available to extinguish the fire, but I remember feeling, why is there no one here to help me tend this fire?”

Having to deal with powerful feelings and discover new ways of being in the world is daunting, but what if instead of feeling shame around our shyness and social anxiety, we could look at it as healthy, natural, and even necessary. Uncomfortable feelings are needed as we explore the great new mysteries life is offering us. I will try to view my own social anxiety through that lens.

How does teen camp help teenagers lessen their social anxiety? Well, if our camp is about anything, I think it is about connection. Teenagers recognize fairly quickly at camp that they are not going to be judged harshly, if at all. I believe this helps them relax, let go of some defenses, and share their gifts with peers, sometimes for the very first time.

We create a space where teenagers talk openly about things they are trying to figure out. We offer group discussions on topics like gender, sexuality, race, parents, politics, etc., and teenagers can express themselves in a real, and honest way. While we are not a “therapy camp,” I’ve seen how therapeutic these discussion groups are.

We leave kids alone to read a book when that is what they feel like doing, and they don’t have to always put on a happy face, or act happier than they feel. Finally, if social anxiety is a fear of being rejected then it just makes sense that being in a community where you are seen, accepted, and loved can go a long way towards reducing some of those social anxieties and shyness, and maybe more easily accept that invitation to the great unknown that is our life.

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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The Link Between Technology & Social Anxiety: Why Face-to-Face Engagement is So Important

The Link Between Technology & Social Anxiety: Why Face-to-Face Engagement is So Important

 

In video 5 my 8 part discussion with Amy Frisch, a wonderful therapist who has been leading teenage girls groups for twenty years, she had some truly helpful things to say around social anxiety.

She talks about how stimulating technology can be and how we need to help our teens learn to quiet their central nervous system. I think we sometimes forget that we are human animals and that when it comes to fear and anxiety our reactions are often not much different than other animals.

My takeaway

My favorite takeaway from this short video is when Amy says that today teens consider “hanging out” what they do on Skype or Snapchat. They don’t call each other on the phone and say “come over to my house, hang out, no one’s home.”

I imagine with so much of our communicating being done through our phone, the idea of sitting face to face feels like too much. Too much pressure, too much stress, and maybe even too much intimacy.

“Consciously Parenting Teens” Video Series

I hope you enjoy the video above. If you haven’t opted in to see the full 8 part series, I do encourage you to see it. Amy has a really unique way of presenting ideas. Here’s the form to subscribe.

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An invitation

I would love to continue this discussion with you in the comments below. If  you feel inspired to share your stories or insights, I would love to hear them.

How Anxiety Can Help Teens Practice For Life Challenges

How Anxiety Can Help Teens Practice For Life Challenges


Getting to the other side of anxiety

In this short video Lauren Muriello, LPC of Well Being Therapy Center talks about how we all experience anxiety and that it is a natural, healthy part of the human condition. This reminds me of I a quote I saw recently that read … 

'The presence of anxiety is unavoidable, but the prison of anxiety is optional.' - Max LucadoClick To Tweet

Using fear as a tool

Lauren makes a great point about the importance for parents to try not to shield their teen from the things that might trigger their anxiety, but to let them feel worried and anxious, and to help them “get on the other side of it.” Anxiety is just an emotion like any other. We don’t have to get anxious about feeling anxious.

She discusses the importance for parents to encourage their children not to avoid the things that frighten them. The more we avoid things that make us anxious the more things we find to become anxious about. Avoiding certain things may help us feel less anxious now, but in the long run, that avoidance can make our lives smaller.

Are you contributing to your teen’s anxiety?

Lauren suggests that the higher expectations we may be putting on our children today can add to their stress and anxiety. She reminds us that there is a good chance that the grade our kids get on their AP Biology class will probably not have a very high correlation to the happiness they will experience.

I know that it is very easy as parents to project their own wants and maybe even unfulfilled dreams on to our children. Sometimes it can be a challenge  NOT to pass on our own worries and fears as well, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to relax more and help our teenagers do the same.

“Parenting and Digital Technology” Video Series

I do hope you get a chance to watch the video above and opt-in for the whole series. I think there are some some good takeaways sprinkled throughout. If you missed the opt-in form at the end of the video, here it is again.

Enter your email to see the entire 9 part video series with Lauren Muriello, LPC

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Do Cell Phones Belong at Camp?

Do Cell Phones Belong at Camp?

Do cell phones belong at camp?

The trauma of taking away kids’ “magic phones” at camp

I know that’s a little dramatic, but that’s how it feels watching kids hand their cell phones over to their parents when they are dropped off at camp. I think I got that “magic phone” term from the comedian Norm McDonald, (one of my favorites).

A chat with a colleague

I was talking last week with the Director of another summer camp for teenagers. They allow cell phones at camp and they advertise it. The Director was very honest in telling me that allowing phones makes it easier to get teens to come to camp.

They have restrictions around usage, and he doesn’t feel that having cell phones hurts their campers’ experience. He knows his camp and campers well and for his camp he is probably right.

I imagine that if we changed our cell phone policy it would make it a little easier to help some teens find the courage to give camp a try. We have plenty of campers who live with social anxiety and general shyness.

A therapist who specializes in social anxiety and teens recently told me that attending a sleepaway camp for a teen with social anxiety can feel like trying to climb a ladder that’s missing the bottom rungs. He said it may be too difficult for some.

While I’m sure he’s right, I also know that plenty of teens have come to camp with social anxiety and in a short time were able to relax, find their tribe and have a lot of fun.

The hero’s journey

I’m sure we could change our policy on cell phones and still have a good camp. We would set guidelines and boundaries and help campers practice using their phones responsibly. However, ultimately, I would be doing it to get more campers, and not because I think teenagers would have a better experience at camp. That’s probably not a good enough reason to change our policy.

I believe having teens let go of their phones for a few weeks at camp is really good for them. Within a few days most every camper is able to relax and connect with others in a way that is powerful and healing. I think not having their phone makes it easier for these connections to happen.

I also believe that this concept known as FOMO, (fear of missing out), is a very real thing and that even teens with plenty of self esteem and a lot of friends can come away from fifteen minutes on Instagram feeling as if their life does not quite measure up to others. I think it’s the nature of social media to make us feel that way.

So, we’ll keep our current cell phone policy and hope enough teens find the courage to take the hero’s journey, leave their cell phones with their parents, and come to camp. They will be surprised how little they miss that phone. In a short time, they will recognize that there is more magic to be found in being present, laughing and spending time with new friends than there is in staring at their phone.

“Angst” — A Powerful Film About Social Anxiety That Every Parent Needs to See

“Angst” — A Powerful Film About Social Anxiety That Every Parent Needs to See

Last week the Parents Association in the town where I live held a showing of a new documentary called “Angst.” The film explores anxiety in kids and teenagers, its causes, effects and what we can do about it.

It’s a powerful, courageous and inspirational film that features teenagers, parents, and mental health professionals telling their stories and offering some great tips for managing anxiety. I encourage everyone to see it.

You can watch the trailer for “Angst” [here], and the producers are happy to offer it to schools and groups that would like to host a screening. You can easily reach them through their website angstmovie.com and find out where the movie is being shown. 

My takeaways from watching this film:

1. Avoidance turns a molehill that could be easily climbed into something that feels more like a insurmountable mountain.

When we avoid certain things that scare us they just get bigger and bigger. It’s probably true that when we avoid things we are afraid of we feel some momentary relief, but it only reinforces the belief that the thing we are anxious about is really something to be afraid of.

It’s important to help teenagers to not avoid the things they are afraid of, (like asking a salesperson in a store a question).

Evidence shows that exposure therapy, which is something many therapists trained in cognitive behavioral therapy use to treat social anxiety, is the best treatment for reducing anxiety.

With exposure therapy we can gradually become less sensitized to these things that make us anxious.

2. Make time to talk with your child and encourage them to talk about the things that make them anxious

In the movie there are several scenes with parents and their children talking about how helpful it was to have their parents really take the time to listen and try and understand what they are feeling.

It felt as important and as healing for the parent as it was for the teenager to take this time to really talk through anxious feelings. When parents share the things that they are anxious about, it normalizes the discussion.

I don’t think parents can or need to understand everything there child is feeling, but for teenagers to come away from these conversations feeling seen and heard can go a long way to lessening their child’s anxiety.

I came away from this movie hopeful and excited for everyone who feels held back by an abundance of anxiety. I hope you get to see it.

Adam