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
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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Passionately Becoming True to Ourselves at Summer Camp

Passionately Becoming True to Ourselves at Summer Camp

The following post comes from Phoebe, a current camp counselor, that she wrote about attending Odyssey Teen Camp as a teen. Phoebe’s passion for our loving community shines through here in a way that’s different from the typical posts we share on our blog, and we thought it’d be really valuable to re-share with you. Enjoy!

Phoebe’s Take on Odyssey Teen Camp

“Odyssey Teen Camp is fantasy football, but a little less jockey. I don’t know much about sports, but I am vaguely familiar with the concept of fantasy football. I believe that this is what Odyssey Teen Camp is. It’s a collective of just these superhumans coming together to create this amazing and forceful atmosphere. All these people across America, some from lame suburbia to the complexities of New York City and even across the globe all come together, and together we create a team of humans that’s unlike anything you’ll ever experience.

The kind of people that attract Odyssey Teen Camp, if you come from a small town like me, at best, you could find 2 to 3 in your hometown. However at camp together it’s a population of 200 spectacular humans all bringing something different to the table. We are all so different but all have the same goal in mind, and we just produce this amazing flowing energy of creativity, self-authenticity, and unapologetic self-expression. I think that is what makes the environment so special.

You come into camp, no one knows your backstory, social standing in your high school, or even your last name. I think the anonymity that presents itself towards the campers is what allows us to so passionately become true to ourselves, and for a lot of cases for the first time in our lives. It’s the first time we have this place of just complete radical self-acceptance and once we enter the woods and strip ourselves from the outside world, and judgments, and even cell phones this new mindset just enters so naturally. For 11 months of the year, we are all so inclined to harbor these true emotions or ideas but at Odyssey Teen Camp you are released of any hesitations and have so many crazy opportunities to learn, whether it’s a funky new skill or something about yourself.

One of the most gratifying experiences at Odyssey Teen Camp is just taking a step back and looking at the community itself. You can look into the field and see such a broad spectrum of different of people coexisting so freely. The energy and lovingness this space creates are just so satisfying. A lot of times on the subject of leaving camp the word ‘reality’ often shows up in the conversation, as if this little bubble of utopia is just this synchronized dream a couple of hundred teenagers are experiencing at the same time. What we do and experience at Odyssey Teen Camp is completely real and valid. We made this amazing inclusive environment of just pure joy and simpleness just because we decided to, and that is truly spectacular.”

Superhumans come together at camp

Phoebe’s palpable passion is such a fantastic example of the type of young person that makes our teen camp such a special place to be. By gathering a group of like-minded teens together, we really are able to break down the barriers that define us and open ourselves up to something larger.

So, what do you say? Are you ready to come and be a super-human with us? Are you ready to leave behind the person you might be being for someone else, and dig deeper into who you really are? And, better yet, actually get to BE that person free of judgment?

If so, we’d love to see you this summer. We have some Open Houses coming up this Spring where you can come meet teen camp staff and campers.

Or, if you’re already convinced, you can just go ahead and get registered now.

We can’t wait to see you this summer!

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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