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 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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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
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 cabin 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.

Tending the fire

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?”

Seeing through a different lens

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.

Teens in discussion at camp.

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.

Summer Camp Online 2020 now in session!

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we had to cancel camp for 2020 but we now have an online program where teens can jump in any time. It may be the perfect way for shy or anxious teens to test the waters and meet the community. Watch the video to find out more.

Find out about Odyssey Teen Camp

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

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.

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