The Stresses of a Young Teenage Day Camp Counsellor

At age 16, you don’t usually have many options for your first job. Your C.V. is empty. Working in a fast food restaurant, a grocery store or a boutique is quite often the job that teenagers coming out of secondary 4 take to earn money and gain experience. But others opt for a more stimulating summer job, with all its challenges.

By Mélina Soucy

Frisbee is 16. All summer she’s had to endure a group of about 15 young 7- and 8-year-olds endlessly chanting her nickname, and ribbing her about it.  

“Frisbee, Matis pushed me!”

“Frisbee, is that your real name?”

“Frisbee, I wanna go pipi!”

And all that, yelled and squealed by the children before she’s even taken morning attendance.   

Obviously, this sort of behavior is typical of children that age. Nonetheless, some of them have notes beside their names on the attendance list.

Jason, 7, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)… Matis, 8, ADHD… Coralie, 8, ADHD… Four little letters that can intimidate if you don’t understand what their scope can be.

“We had a camp counsellor training period that lasted two days,” Frisbee explains. “We had an hour on different behavior problems, like ADHD and Tourette Syndrome, to learn how to tell them apart. The problem is there’s a difference between theory and practice. Every young person is unique, and reacts differently to intervention.”

The new counsellors arrive at their first day of work ill-equipped for what they are about to face. “You have to really know these kids well to react to them in the right way,” she says. “It’s not easy, especially at the beginning of the summer.”

After having comforted two or three children who had the bad luck of putting tanning cream in their eyes, Frisbee announces the first game.

“Okay, gang. We’re going to play Welcome to the Land of the Indians! It’s an elimination game, which means once you’re eliminated, you’re out for the rest of the game.” Even though it’s Frisbee’s first job, this counsellor obviously knows how to train her children in their morning voyage through the imaginary forest where they become Indians.

Sadly for Frisbee, some members of the tribe don’t react very positively in the face of defeat.

Managing Failure

Coralie, 8, suffers from ADHD. She doesn’t like to lose, like most of her playing companions. But unlike them, Coralie demonstrates disproportionate reactions when things don’t go her way.

As the second-to-last Indian to fall in combat, she runs away, crying, frustrated at having lost, following her impulses.

“It’s difficult to manage a case like Coralie,” Frisbee confides. “The best trick is to get to know her so we can intervene in the best possible way.”

After five weeks in the company of the young ADHD child, the counsellor succeeds in finding a way to calm her down quickly. Frisbee knows that on top of the fact that the young girl has difficulty concentrating, she doesn’t eat breakfast every day nor does she always eat lunch.

“Coralie, you have every right to be angry,” Frisbee tells her. “All that I ask is that you point out a place where you can sit down and calm yourself. When things go better, you can rejoin the group.”

The counsellor finds to her surprise that her approach has worked. “It’s the first time she’s ever listened to me,” Frisbee reveals with relief. For the five weeks before this, Coralie occasionally required the intervention of a sort of a chaperone: an apprentice special education technician, since Coralie had a tendency to flee the park entirely.

Coralie isn’t the only ADHD kid that Frisbee has to manage. She also has to find different ways to intervene with two boys. Knowing them well is a big help.

For his part, Jason has difficulty integrating with the group when his friend Matis isn’t there. To help him, the counsellor has to get the rest of the kids interested in things that interest Jason: cars and car racing. Since Jason doesn’t listen to her, she’ll incorporate his interests into the group’s next activity.

This rookie day camp counsellor doesn’t see ADHD as a serious problem: “I have some of that in me,” she confesses. “I don’t consider it a disorder. It’s a part of us. It makes my kids super endearing!”

Hard Beginnings

The first two weeks of day camp were particularly tough for Frisbee. “After my first day, I wanted to leave,” she recalls. “Those first weeks reinforced my feeling that this wasn’t the job for me. It’s very demanding.”

Looking after the kids’ safety, well-being and amusement, as well as satisfying their parents, are complimentary tasks, but difficult ones.

“The parents are giving us that which is most precious for them in the world,” Frisbee explains. “They expect us to take care of them as if they were our own.”

But after those first weeks, this teenage counsellor gained self-confidence. She even pledges to come back to the same job next year.

“We end up getting attached to these kids through taking care of them as if they were our own,” says Frisbee, her eyes filled with joy. “It’s not easy, but it’s fun to have a job in which you feel like you’re having a concrete, positive impact on the life of someone who needs it.”

There is no first job so instructive, she says. “If you want to have a great summer, there is no better summer job. As well as helping me to grow, I made new friendships with the other counsellors. It’s been the best summer of my life!”    

Difficulties Linked to Youth Protection

Contacting youth protection authorities (the DPJ in Québec) is another reality to which teenage day camp counsellors aren’t necessarily prepared for at their age.

“I’m not often in fear for these kids’ lives, because sometimes they’ll say some worrying things, but it’s difficult to know if what they’re saying is true” explains Polochon, who is responsible for the park where Frisbee works. “Nonetheless, it’s important to give the DPJ a heads up so we’re sure that the child is safe.”

Polochon, in his twenties, adds that it’s tough on morale to contact the DPJ, because they don’t follow up with the day camp after their inquiries.

“Two years ago, one of the counsellors who took care of 5-year-olds was told upsetting things by one of her campers. We asked the child some open questions so as not to put words in her mouth. We also talked to her sister. That ended with us contacting the DPJ.”

He adds: “We never heard back from them.”

First seen in Reflet de Société, Vol. 27, no. 1, printemps (Spring) 2019, pages 8 – 11.

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