It’s the time of year for sleep-away camp, and that can bring a lot of anxiety for both parents and kids. Will they have a good time? Make new friends? Get homesick? Have so much fun they forget to write?
Or will they be victimized by bullies?
It’s hard to predict. Even if your child has been to a particular camp before, there will be a new mix of campers and possibly staff. The social pecking order will be newly established, and that often means that one or more kids are excluded from the seemingly happy group.
According to Laura Martocci, Ph.D., a sociologist and former associate dean at Wagner College who has long studied the subject, bullying is a bit of an art form. It can be done right in view of authority figures. How will your camp’s counselors respond?
Tip No. 1: Make sure the camp has a specific anti-bullying policy. Every camp says they have one, but is their main plan for the bullied child to talk to a counselor? That may not be enough.
Does the camp monitor free time? Do they police the bathrooms? Are counselors trained to respond immediately to signs that a child is being excluded or poked fun at? Do the counselors know how to respond without making the child a target for further abuse? If your camp doesn’t take bullying seriously, urge them to do more.
Tip No. 2: Communicate about your child’s needs. Was your child bullied at school recently? They may need extra help. What if your child is on the autism spectrum? Maybe your child is quiet and won’t rock the boat. Or perhaps they are simply quick to frustration or anger? Discussing these issues with the camp staff may help prevent little problems from blowing up into big ones.
Tip No. 3: Talk to your child about how much to put up with. No child wants to be seen as a crybaby, but there is a line at which being picked on is not acceptable. Talk to your child about how to maintain composure when they’re picked on, and how to recognize when aggression is jovial and friendly versus cruel and excluding. Let them know that they have a right to protect themselves and draw boundaries. Let them learn to laugh at themselves in the company of others, but make sure they can spot behavior that could undermine their self-esteem.
Tip No. 4: Help them navigate new experiences. Make sure they know that learning new things, from swimming to relationships, can be hard. When we don’t get it right the first time, we often feel inadequate or even humiliated. But learning is a process, and we need to try again and again until we get it right. This goes for friendships, too. The feelings they are likely to experience at camp are normal and survivable.
Tip No. 5: Creating a safe word may help and reinforce your bond. Come up with a safe word that will indicate that something is wrong. Make sure they understand that saying the safe word is not the same as tattling. It simply says that they’re struggling to make things work. Put a structure in place for them to get you the safe word, so they will know they are not completely alone. If your child uses the safe word, call the camp and ask for a little extra attention for your camper.
Finally, be aware of the fact that adults can sometimes be bullies or enable bullies. Some adults like to work with children because they are predatory. Make sure your child understands that they should never be alone with an adult who they feel uncomfortable with. Encourage them to use their safe word or otherwise talk to you if an adult at camp is bothering them.