S'More Anxiety

I’ve been reading a lot about anxiety in our nation’s youth. Getting to work with kids all summer, I’m blessed to see it on the other side; if our campers arrive anxious, they leave relaxed, engaged and connected.

But, as a camp director and parent to teen and pre-teen boys, I’m concerned about the rise of anxiety amongst our kids.  And, it’s certainly on camp directors’ minds. Just in the past week, the subject has been raised to me several times by different colleagues.

Bob Ditter, a licensed children and family therapist and one of the great camp thinkers of our time, has a lot to say about the rise of anxiety in young people. I hope you’ll find the upcoming ‘Anxious About Anxiety’ Campfire Conversation podcast useful. I certainly did.

Here are a few thoughts about it all from a camp director’s standpoint.

The Comparison Trap

As never before in history, humans are literally bombarded with information. We have access to more information about more events around the world in every sphere of activity – governments, markets, sports, arts, and more.

This gives us unheard of amounts of knowledge. And, it gives us the ability to compare ourselves to everyone else, all the time.

Where did this person go to college? What is this person wearing? What did my friend do yesterday that is so cool? Why didn’t I make the same grade? What team did she make? What a cool car/job/house/vacation….

We’ve always compared ourselves to others. It’s a human trait. However, up until a few years ago, the comparison has been to the guy or girl sitting next to you. Now, all of the sudden, we can compare ourselves to EVERYONE.

Sadly, most of us only compare ourselves with those we think have ‘more’ or do it ‘better.’ This is a major reason why we find ourselves anxious about what we don’t have or don’t think we’ll have rather than grateful for we do enjoy.

As Mark Twain said, “Comparison is death of joy.”

Personally, I have a hard time with this myself and that’s after 45 years of life experience. I’m barely prepared to handle the information and opportunities coming at me. If that’s the case, what do you think this does to our children?

The effect on them has been devastating. To me, the constant flow of information leads to constant comparisons. And that, to echo Mr. Twain’s words, steals a young person’s joy.

Possible Anxiety Antidotes

As one my teachers recently said, comparison won’t get you where you want to be. Here’s the quote from Bernadette Jiwa:

“It’s doubtful that comparing yourself or your work to someone else’s will get you to where you want to go…. (Y)ou can’t own your unique identity if you’re spending the majority of your time looking over your shoulder.”

As with a lot of Bernadette tells me, I agree. And that, to me, is the beauty of camp. Here are a few lessons from camp that I think may help our anxious young people. (And, they are just as helpful for us more experienced people!)

Presence

I recently listened to a podcast about getting out of your own way. The teacher, Gary John Bishop, was comparing the host’s view on life with his young daughter’s:

“At four years old, she has freedom to be. There are no constraints. She doesn’t have to be this way or that way, that way or this way. She’s way more present to the miracle of life than you are because, she is connected to what’s happening right now.”

That is the joy of camp. We totally unplug, stop the comparisons, and stay in the present. Campers are thinking about engaging right now with what they are doing and with whom they are doing it. Those moments are filled with joy, challenge, laughter, and friendships. These full moments of presence happen every day, no mindfulness or meditation needed.

Competence

Kids need to learn that they can do things on their own. This means not only making their bed, cooking a meal, changing a flat tire or unclogging a toilet. (Yes, our campers learn all of these things.)

Competence also means working through uncertainty with friends, learning how to ask questions, standing up for what you believe and learning how to learn when you are wrong.

These situations and learning build competence. And, when you have learned how to learn, this transfers to other situations.

Connection

Our kids need to connect to something larger than themselves. We humans are connective creatures – we thrive on working groups and have since the dawn of our time on earth. These connections need to be authentic, lasting, and honest.

Our current culture gets children (and adults) to start navel-gazing a lot. This comes from the comparison trap: look at that one, compare yourself, and nit-pick everything that doesn’t measure up.

Instead, our campers need to connect to something they love, which loves them, and creates a launching pad for further adventures. That’s what our counselors, division heads, and program heads do on a daily basis.

Last Thoughts

Here’s the thing: I’m just a camp director. All I know comes from working with kids and staff, reading a lot, and the experience we’ve had over 17 summers in camping.

Having said that, I do know the experience our campers have enjoyed has been incredibly positive on the whole.

Upon reflecting ‘why’, I believe it’s for these three outcomes found at summer camp: presence, competence, and connection. (Practicing gratitude helps, too!)

While maybe easier at camp, these outcomes are something our kids can pursue at home. Being completely present, building competencies, and forging connections certainly help to mitigate the feelings of anxiety.

They all fill the space of comparison and fill our children with a deeper understanding of their own gifts. In our experience, they leave our campers with that joyful glow that leads to great memories, friendships, and outcomes. Let’s all shoot to those goals.

Bob Ditter, a licensed family therapist and one the most wise ‘camp whisperers’ that I know, has a LOT more to say anxiety in children. I hope you’ll take a listen.

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