Making Friends at Camp

Does your child struggle to make and keep friends? These summer camps help foster social skills in ADD / ADHD kids.

A Social Summer, Part 2

Feeling “normal” for the first time

Along with teaching campers to reach out, ADHD/LD summer camps show campers how to feel like part of a group. Fitting in is unfamiliar to many ADHD children, who are used to being shunned by their peers.

"Parents ask me what the advantage is in sending these kids to camp," says Linda Tatsapaugh, director of the Talisman Camp in Zirconia, North Carolina. "This is a chance for them not to always feel different. They discover that there are others like them."

One technique camps use to foster a sense of belonging is to have each camper wear a T-shirt or button emblazoned with the name of the camp or his particular cabin. Wearing the shirt or button shows that the child is automatically part of the group -- that he fits in with the others, even if his behavior isn't exemplary.

Having an identity literally pinned onto them builds familiarity fast and eliminates the pressure of having to introduce themselves formally, says child psychologist Carol Brady, Ph.D., an ADHD specialist who spends part of each summer working at a special-needs camp near her home in Houston. For many of these kids, she says, being part of a group enables them to feel “normal” for the first time in their lives.

Kids learn to feel like one of the gang by sharing responsibility for chores like cleaning and other tasks required to keep their cabin running smoothly -- and by making sure that rules are followed. As a result, says Brady, the campers grow familiar with the subtle interplay of compromise and negotiation required to work well with others (and to get along with a friend). They also learn to recognize their own strengths, and to root for, rather than show disrespect to, their peers (something many ADHD kids have trouble doing).

At many camps, says Brady, returning campers are encouraged to “show the ropes” to first-time campers. Having this responsibility can be a life-changing experience for an ADHD child, who may be so used to getting help (from parents and teachers) that he fails to realize that he is capable of giving help. The resulting boost in self-confidence can be enormous.

Problem-solving practice

Even the best-behaved kids slip up sometimes. Campers who don't treat others with respect, or who otherwise fail to meet expectations, must face consequences -- typically, the loss of certain privileges. At Camp Buckskin, for example, an errant camper might be required to take on an extra chore, or might miss the daily snack time. As a result, campers learn that making bad choices regarding their own behavior makes life unpleasant for them, as well as for those around them.

The counselor-to-camper ratio at ADHD/LD camps is typically higher than at mainstream camps, so individualized attention is the norm. But no matter how close the supervision, disagreements will arise at camp -- just as they do in the real world. On these occasions, campers are encouraged to work things out by problem-solving on their own.

“When a problem comes up,” says Tatsapaugh, “the kids sit down and solve it together, under the direction of a staff person. We ask them, ‘What’s not going right? What do you need to do differently? What is the consequence of what you did, and how should you remedy it?’” Instead of yelling at one another (or worse), the kids are encouraged to communicate productively—without blame or shame. “Once the issue’s been dealt with,” she explains, “we don’t talk about it anymore.”

A similar approach is used at Camp Buckskin. “If Billy and Tommy are fighting over who holds the broom and who holds the dustpan,” says Bauer, “we pull them aside and ask them what’s going on. They each give their version, so each can hear how the other perceived the situation. From there, we let them figure out how to remedy the situation. Whether it be by flipping a coin or taking turns each day, they come up with the solution.”

More About Helping ADHD Kids Make Friends

'Summer School' for Social Smarts

Parents Share Their Advice

Someone to Play With: Finding Friendship for My Child with ADHD


This article comes from the February/March 2007 issue of ADDitude.

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