Learning from disappointment and frustration
When a camper wants to call home after only being there for a few days, they usually ask their parents to come and get them. They are tired from walking; they don’t love the rustic camping lifestyle; they miss their cell phones or all of the above. Usually, parents reluctantly get in their cars and pick up their kids.
I’m sure it is very tough for parents when their child tells them something like, “my mental health is deteriorating.” If my child called me from summer camp saying she was having a hard time, I might get in my car also (although my wife might stop me). It’s hard for parents to allow their kids to experience frustration or disappointment. I can barely watch my daughter strikeout in softball; it tears me up.
Perspective can change experiences
But what if I were to tell myself and my daughter a different story? What if I told her that the challenges at camp or striking out in softball would help her find the courage, perseverance, and maybe even the sense of humor needed to keep stepping up to the plate, to keep showing up for life?
I’m thinking of one child from a few years ago. For the first few days of camp, this teen — let’s call him Brian — was having a terrible time at OTC. He wouldn’t eat because he didn’t like the food. He wouldn’t shower because the showers had spiders in them.
At home, Brian was homeschooled. He had left high school because he felt the other kids didn’t understand him. The story that had been told to him by the school or other kids was that he was an outcast. He was afraid of opening up and a little bristly at times, to say the least.
Our counselors usually encourage OTC teens to try to make it past those first few days without calling their parents, but Brian was persistent, and within a few days, he called home.
“You can do this!” Brian’s mom told him.”
Brian cried. His counselors sat with him for a long time. They listened to his woes about camp and his deeper worries about life. He opened up. After crying for a bit, all the tension and anger that had been building up inside of him was released. At that moment, he knew he wasn’t going to be able to leave, and he’d better get used to it.
That night, after some encouragement, Brian performed stand-up comedy at the talent show. The crowd roared. The whole camp was laughing with him. He started to tell himself a different story. He was funny and weird — in a charming way. He turned out to be one of the most popular kids at camp. He still was reluctant to take a shower. But he had a great time.
Shifting the narrative
Many of the harmful stories teens tell themselves are things they have been told to believe through the internet and social media. I also wonder how many teens tell themselves negative stories coming from things like diagnoses doctors have given them? I think teens hear false or negative stories or “suggestions” about themselves all the time.
How can we help the teens in our lives tell themselves the story that they are competent, strong, capable, unique, wonderful, creative beings?
When a teenager wants to go home from camp because they are tired from all the walking, or they miss their cell phone, or their refrigerator, or their bed, and they tell their parents on the phone that “their mental health is deteriorating,” they probably believe that story.
How parents can help
Can parents help them change that story? Can they tell them an even truer story? Something like, “I know this feels tough, but you are on a hero’s journey, and you are far stronger, more capable, and more resilient than you will ever know. You will come through your next ten days of camp with more friends, more confidence, and more experiences that will serve you for years to come. It may not be easy, but I know you can do this!”
Here’s to helping our teenagers tell themselves different stories that are more true and more empowering.
I’m Adam Simon. I started teen camp eighteen years ago with the vision of creating a space where teenagers would know they are safe from bullying or negative judgments and would feel free to show who they really are and to become their best selves. Let’s connect, discuss, engage…