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Enjoying Summer Camp: A Bullying-Prevention Checklist

Tips for a healthy summer adventure.

As summer arrives, so do plans for camp—whether it be a week at day camp or several weeks at a sleep-away venue. As you go through the checklist of items to bring (and electronics the staff wants you to Leave At Home ), it's a good idea to prep your camper for the social dynamics they might encounter—especially bullying. Your child(ren) may roll their eyes at the mention of the B-word (bullying) and yet take in what you are saying—remember, eye-rolling can be part of their bravado. They may already be nursing a secret anxiety over the need to establish their identify in this new arena, knowing full well how cruel their peers can be. Even if your child is self-assured, or has been to camp for several years now, every year brings new personalities to the staff, and a new mix of campers. Every year social status must be established anew (meaning that this year might be the year your child unexpectedly finds him or herself to be the “Odd Camper Out”).
And that even if (especially if) they are snuggled within their group, they have bystander responsibilities.

So, a few tips for campers—and the guardians sending them off:

1. Find out specifics about the camp’s bullying policy.

Every camp has one, but not every camp trains its staff, or has clear policies in place (other than “tell a counselor”).
You want to know:

  • how the camp monitors “free time.”
  • what counselors are trained to do right then and there should they become aware that a camper is being made fun of or subtly harassed. (Bullying is an art-form, able to be carried out right under the nose of an authority. Will your child’s counselors spot it and address it, or overlook it because they don’t know what to do about it?)
  • how the camp promotes inclusivity—do they clearly encourage, motivate, and have a structure in place for bystander interventions?
  • how counselors are trained to support vulnerable kids without making them a target for further abuse (does anyone randomly police the bathrooms? Are counselors keeping an eye on quiet kids during times of program transition?)

Don't be afraid to call and ask your camp to elaborate on their protocols. If they cannot answer these questions, or simply direct you to a formulaic anti-bullying policy on their website, press them. More is needed—prompt them to supply it.

2. Alert the camp to any anticipated emotional difficulties.

Just as you alert the camp nurse to medications, physical limitations, and your child’s medical history, you should alert the staff to any emotional challenges your camper might face. Emotional limitations are as important to counselors as their physical counterparts.

  • Was you child bullied in school this past year? Is s/he now a bit withdrawn, oversensitive, or anxious? (all signs of vulnerability that bullies seem to smell…).
  • Is your son or daughter quiet, accepting, the type of child who won’t speak up and needs to be encouraged to share—especially about dynamics they may be witnessing?
  • Does your child struggle with social skills—perhaps s/he has ADHD, is “on the spectrum,” or is quick to frustration, crying, or anger. Staff is trained to pro-actively work with a variety of personalities, and can prevent problems from mushrooming in the shadows if they know to look out for particular challenges on Day One of camp.

3. There is a fine line between being stoic/ ‘taking it’ and being a crybaby. Talk to you children about that line, help them establish it.

We know that what kids get picked on for is relative—one day it may be their less than spectacular athletic skills, the next it may be their clothes, their speech patterns, their (suspected) gender preferences, or simply that they are the new kid. Talk to your child about maintaining composure and drawing boundaries—what is the ‘small stuff’ s/he can shrug off and learn to laugh about, and what undermines self-esteem and needs to be nipped in the bud? That line is somewhat different for each of us—affirm this fact to you child, and help them draw their boundaries.
(For example, assure them that ribbing can be expected to accompany a goof-up of any sort. A few chuckles is something to shrug off, while ribbing that morphs into an unwanted “nickname” is something different.) Learning to laugh at yourself is just as important as learning to draw boundaries—and differentiating between the two takes practice.

4. Camp is an arena out of space and time—a place to “try new things.” Remind your children of this—and all its implications:

Trying new activities makes us all vulnerable in new ways—just go for it! Camp is a place to learn new things—from archery to relationship skills. But learning is a process. Talk with your daughter or son about the courage it takes to try something new. About not getting it right the first time, and the feelings of inadequacy and/or humiliation that may seep in (or be conjured by peers). It is important that our children know we have all struggled with new things; all felt embarrassed and uncomfortable at not doing something well—especially if we gave it our best shot.
They will sigh and cut you off with some version of “ok, ok, I know, I know….” but they need to hear these things again; they need to be reminded that they can’t succeed if they don’t try; that every athlete, musician, or actor they respect has had to learn to get back on their feet and face/overcome a less-than-adequate performance; that not everyone will respond to friendship overtures, and that the feelings that accompany these experience are normal (and survivable).

5. Go the extra yard: Reinforce the bond you share with your child and simultaneously create a safety-net with a safe word:

According to the dictionary, a safe word is “a prearranged and unambiguous signal to end an activity.” If YOU, mom/dad, are nervous about sending your child to camp—whether it be because it is their first time away for so long, because they have special needs, had a ‘rough school year’ or simply don’t have an alpha personality—create that extra layer of security by creating a special code word. If used, it will signal your camper is struggling. Sometimes just knowing there is an ‘out’—knowing there is a word that, if used, will not be tattling, but will communicate that s/he is straining to make it work—is enough to allay anxieties you both face. If the safe word is put in play, call the camp. Ask if they’ve noticed anything, and request extra attention be paid to the dynamics around your camper.

Do not rush in / ask questions later.

Doing so may undermine his or her ability to negotiate social difficulties (which may be forgotten, or have become the basis of bonds, by the closing ceremony). On the other hand, you do need your daughter or son to know that s/he will not be abandoned for the duration of their time away. Put a structure in place so you are able to generate support while allowing them to stumble a bit, and try to find their way.

Summer camp should be an adventure—a place where our children start flexing new social muscles and independences in a safe space. While most camps are quite good at policing their waterfronts and activity spaces, they should be equally prepared to create an emotionally safe environment—one that promotes respect and tolerance; one where all the relationship-dangers are well charted, and prepared-for in advance. Make sure your child’s camp is well-prepared for bullying dynamics, and that you and your camper are as well.

More from Laura Martocci Ph.D.
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