An overnight summer program, whether on a college campus or at a camp, can be an awesome experience for teenagers. They get a chance to meet new people and try new things or get better at the things they love to do. But...
Teenagers, being teenagers, often test the boundaries. That’s especially true because overnight summer programs are often the first place they get a chance to be out of the reach of their parents and to just be themselves.
Before your child goes off to camp or a pre-college program, have a discussion about what you and your child expect from the experience. Summer program experts offer the following suggestions on what to agree on:
1. Rules are rules. Follow them.
Programs don’t like to send teenagers home, and the teen who’s sent home isn’t happy about it, either, says Michael Knauf, director at French Woods Festival, a performing arts camp in the western Catskill Mountains of New York.
Programs have strict rules about smoking, vaping, alcohol, drugs and sex. Any of those behaviors could be a deal breaker and end your teen’s summer camp experience on a bad note. Depending on the seriousness of the behavior, the camp could just call to alert you and give your child a warning, or it could be an automatic trip home – at the parents’ expense.
“The thing (to know) about camp is that everybody knows what everybody else is doing,” says Eve Eiffler, owner of Tips on Trips and Camps, a free service that connects kids with camps and other programs. “There is no time that you are left alone. You have to be at activities, and if you don’t show up, staff members have walkie-talkies to keep track of kids. If you do break the rules, chances are you are going to get caught.”
2. Ask for help.
If there’s an uncomfortable or unusual situation, find a camp counselor or dorm advisor and discuss the issue.
“Go to a staff member if there is anything you need help navigating because they are your surrogate parents over the summer,” Eiffler says. “They are there to help you and watch out for you. So if you are afraid or concerned or wondering about things, those are the people you want to go to first. And if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, find another adult.”
3. Respect other people.
You will be living in close quarters with people you don’t know at first. Respect their space, their property, their feelings and their bodies. You will be among people who think differently than you do, or do things in a way that is different from what you’re used it. Keep in mind that anyone could become your new best friend or teach you something awesome you don’t know.
4. Take a risk on something new.
Summer camps don’t have grades, so you can’t fail. And even pre-college academic programs offer activities and field trips that are just for fun. Eiffler advises teenagers to try new things, even if they are afraid they won’t be good at them. You might find that you are better than you thought and find a new life passion or hobby you love.
“This is the time and place to do that because it’s a sheltered, supportive environment, so it’s OK not to be perfect there,” she says. “Nobody is grading them on how fast they get up on water-skis or how quickly they learn to serve on the tennis court. Take this opportunity to really enjoy yourself and try things you wouldn’t normally do.”
5. Choose who you want to be.
Camp represents a clean slate for teenagers, especially if they feel pegged into a certain category at home, Knauf says. It’s a great time to think about how you want to be perceived by a new group of people. It can be freeing, and you could learn something new about yourself.
“Teenagers’ biggest issues are probably self-acceptance, and I think one of the opportunities that they have when they go away to camp is to give up the learned behaviors and the personas and the reputation they have at home and start from scratch,” Knauf says. “It’s a real opportunity. If you are squished in a box where you come from, you can get out of that box.”
6. Take care of yourself.
Without parents there to guide you, you need to take more responsibility for your personal safety and well-being, Eiffler says. That includes basics like remembering to apply sunscreen, but it also includes speaking up if you are sick or injured or feel bullied. Don’t keep these things to yourself.
7. Don’t be surprised if you are homesick.
“This is an expected thing that happens to everybody, and if you start to feel sad or that you miss home or that you can’t take whatever it is, camp staff are all trained to deal with that,” Knauf says.
As tempting as it might be to call Mom and ask her to come get you, try sticking it out instead.
“Just because it is hard isn’t a reason to give up,” Knauf says. “If someone is difficult, remember that learning to deal with difficult people is an important life skill. One of the things that you really learn at summer camp is how to be in a whole new place and adapt to that and do well and thrive.”