Making Friends

Say Yes to Summer Camp

Choosing a summer camp that caters to children with ADHD or other learning disabilities can do wonders for their social skills. Whether they struggle making friends or lack independence, these programs can help.

Girl with ADHD at summer camp laying in sleeping bag in front of tent outside
Girl with ADHD at summer camp laying in sleeping bag in front of tent outside

Does your child need to make friends? Maybe just a single pal to sit with in the cafeteria, or hang out with after school? Friendships, especially close ones, can be heartbreakingly elusive for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Maybe you have a son who lacks self-confidence, or is too shy, to make the initial approach. Perhaps you have a daughter who puts off other children with her apparent selfishness or spaciness, or with her inability to read the subtle social cues that govern interactions between kids.

If your child has social problems, you probably do what you can to help. You arrange play dates. You sign him up for a friendship group. You encourage her to participate in sports, clubs, and other extracurricular activities — anything that might hook her up with like-minded kids. You do everything to help your child learn the skills needed to thrive socially. But what else can you offer?

How about summer camp?

Yes, summer camps are supposed to be all about having fun. But a growing number of camps are teaching kids social skills in addition to crafts, hiking, and canoeing. In fact, of the more than 12,000 camps in the U.S., there are roughly 1,700 .

The benefits of ADHD/LD camps — typically staffed with specially trained counselors – can be remarkable. Often, youngsters who show up at camp without a single close friend go home a few weeks later with several. What’s more, the social skills they learn at camp help them make and keep friends all year long.

Interdependence is key

Laurie L., of Burlingame, California, has two ADHD sons who have been transformed by the social skills they picked up at an ADHD/LD camp. Before camp, her 14-year-old had only a single confidant. Her 15-year-old, impulsive and chronically impatient, lacked even that. That wasn’t surprising, since his two favorite words seemed to be “shut up.”

But after five summers at Camp Buckskin, a wilderness camp for ADHD/LD kids in Ely, Minnesota, her younger son has a wide social network. Her elder son gained several friends and now has a steady girlfriend. Laurie says there’s also been a remarkable change in her boys’ relationship. Once aloof, they’re now best buddies.

How did summer camp transform the two brothers? By encouraging them to show respect to one another and — perhaps more important — by requiring them to participate in activities designed to foster camaraderie and cooperation. A case in point was the challenging Outward Bound-like, seven-day canoeing expedition her older son went on during his fifth summer at Buckskin. “If I didn’t get along with the other kids,” he says, “I’d be dead.”

Laurie’s son learned, in a tangible way, how cooperation enables the members of a group to achieve an important goal. It’s something Tom Bauer, Camp Buckskin’s director, strives to instill in all campers. “Some of these kids, if you let them, will sit with a book all day,” he says. “But you can’t sail through life self-contained like that.”

Learning to reach out

There’s a reason some ADHD kids are so distressingly self-contained: They’re used to failing in their attempts to make friends, so they’ve given up trying. Rather than risk rejection, they learn to do things — however unhappily — on their own. “In their heart of hearts, these kids would prefer to be interacting with others,” says Bauer. “But they view themselves as less worthy, and they lack the skills to initiate those interactions.”

For many children, joining a group is even harder than reaching out to an individual child. But at most ADHD/LD camps, camp counselors take an active role in breaking the ice. That’s certainly the case at The Learning Camp, an academically oriented camp in Vail, Colorado. “If we see a child sitting alone,” says the camp’s director, Ann Cathcart, “we’ll call her and a few other kids together to play checkers.” As the weeks go on, she says, even the shyest kids get better at joining activities — and the counselors step back a bit.

A similar strategy is used at Camp Buckskin. Bauer explains: “If a group of kids is playing hacky-sack, but one kid is hanging out alone, we’ll go over and casually chat with him. We’ll say something like, ‘What’s going on?’ or ‘How is your day?’ Then we might say, ‘You don’t seem too happy. Would you like to play with those guys?’ Usually, the child will give an excuse like, ‘I’m no good at hacky-sack,’ or ‘They don’t want me to play with them.’ Then we might say, ‘Do you want me to go over and play, too?’ The child will often respond, ‘Would you really do that?'”

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.”


Summer Camp Tip

To ensure the best possible experience for each camper, most ADHD/LD camps require parents to complete a detailed questionnaire about their child; some also require interviews and formal reports from teachers, doctors, or guidance counselors.

Even if you’re not asked, it’s a good idea to let the camp staff know about your child’s problem areas. (Need help choosing a camp? See How to Pick an ADHD/LD Camp for Your Child)

If your child needs more academic or behavioral support than a summer camp can offer, find helpful tips for choosing an academic program at How to Pick an Academic Program for Your Child.

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