How camp can benefit those with mental health issues

Leslie Penkunas//April 5, 2019

How camp can benefit those with mental health issues

Leslie Penkunas//April 5, 2019

If you’re the parent of a child with attention and behavioral problems, you already know that downtime can be a downfall because the structure your child needs is absent.

Enter summertime — when the well-established school routine suddenly goes missing — and parents often find themselves eager to engage their kids in some structured activities that are both fun and predictable. Summer camp, anyone?

Although parents of children with mental health issues may be apprehensive about enrolling their children in summer camp, it’s actually a good idea, for several reasons. First, it gives your child a great opportunity to get experience interacting with peers, something that can be especially challenging for kids with behavioral problems. Secondly, your kids learn to follow rules from someone other than you, and every opportunity you can take to teach them that is worth considering.

That said, it’s wise for parents to do their homework when selecting the best summer camp to meet their child’s needs. Kids with attention and behavior problems tend to be more immature, so err on the side of more structure. Look for a camp that has enough structure to provide a framework for predictability but not so strict that your child with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) will lose interest.

For example, if swimming is an offered activity, ask whether that means open swim time to do whatever your child wants, or does it include a 20-minute swim lesson before free swimming time? The latter would be preferable for the child with behavioral issues.

Also, check out the ratio of adult instructors to kids. The more adults per child, the better. Shoot for no more than 20 kids to one adult — and significantly lower if possible.

It’s also important to involve your child in the choice of a camp. Signing up your child for a bowling camp if he hates bowling isn’t wise. That doesn’t mean that your child will love every activity a camp features, but she should be positive about the overall offerings.

What if your child balks at the idea of going to summer camp? You as the parent have to decide how important summer camp is to you. Ask yourself what your child would be doing otherwise. Sitting at home playing video games? Spending time unsupervised with other neighborhood kids?

So, ask yourself if this is a battle you want to fight. If so, I would say, “Here are your options. You can go to this camp or to that camp.” You could negotiate and offer your hesitant child the opportunity to go on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays rather than all five days. You could also consider setting up an incentive program to encourage him to attend camp.

Although it’s not necessary, in most cases, to send children with mental health issues to camps designed specifically for them, I tend to think there are many benefits. Our five-week Penn State Summer Treatment Program, which we run in collaboration with Penn State Harrisburg on their campus, specializes in treatment of children with attention and behavior problems.

From the kids’ point of view, they’re just having fun playing sports or swimming or doing things in a classroom, but we are working on social and emotional skills. We may talk about participation or cooperation and do a role play on what that looks like at camp. Then we’ll look for that behavior throughout the day and reward it.

Summer camp can be a very valuable experience for children with mental health issues just because they are spending extended periods of time with us — mental health professionals. In fact, one summer camp experience with us is the equivalent of five to seven years of typical weekly outpatient treatment.

Our camp is free to children, thanks to funding by the Children’s Miracle Network, Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center Department of Psychiatry and the community engagement program at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Kids need only go through an evaluation by our Department of Psychiatry.

No matter what camp you choose, make time to ask your child — and camp instructors — about how the day went. You might make use of your own point system to address good and not-so-good behavior.

The bottom line: Look for a camp with good structure and supervision, get your child’s input and fill out that registration form. It’s summertime—and summer camp could make your livin’ much easier!

Dan Waschbusch, Ph.D., is a professor and licensed child and adolescent psychologist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center