From Teenage Anxiety to Self Actualization - Why Summer Camp Matters

When we think about the major shifts in child and teen development over the last 30 or 40 years, many things come to mind. Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences totally transformed the educational paradigm of the 80s and 90s, helping people to understand that children learn (and can be smart) in more ways than just the academic ones. 

Carol Dweck's Mindset has led to some important and fundamental changes in the last 10 years - urging instructors to help kids focus on the things about them they can control, rather than the things beyond their control.

Child development theorists like Peter Gray have been pointing to research suggesting that environments where children can be more self-directed help them to thrive best, and we've seen an explosion in alternative approaches to education like Free Schools, Sudbury Schools, and unschooling. 


Amidst all of this growth, though, is another less happy truth: teenage anxiety and depression are on the rise.

If we are learning more about the best ways to work with kids, why might this be the case? Shouldn't we be having better results with these young people if we are learning how to engage them better?

People have naturally been weighing in on the causes for this rise in anxiety and depression, but to rather unsatisfactory results. Many of these studies have issues with separating correlation vs. causation. Take this article, for instance, that suggests cell phone use could be the cause. While it's certainly possible that screen time could contribute to depression, people ignore that increased cell phone use could be a symptom of having a hard time, rather than a cause. If a teen isn't finding good opportunities to go out with friends, or join a special interest group, or find a significant other, they might very naturally turn to some manner of diversion. These days that looks like a cell phone where 40 years ago it might have looked like going out and getting drunk.

While the increased use of technology can't be ignored, I haven't found any compelling data that it is actually a definitive cause.

Instead, I'll turn to something even less scientific: my own experience. I've been working with teens closely in a summer camp environment since the late 1990s (although at that point I was a teen myself), and I've noticed the disquieting trend toward greater anxiety and depression as well. Unlike a lot of these studies that simply observe the behavior of teens, I've tried talking to them. I'd like to report my findings, and share what I've seen work to help teens gain confidence, have a brighter outlook on life, and form meaningful relationships.

So why are the teens I've talked to anxious?

Well, teens are complicated, and I won't pretend to know exactly why any given teen is having a hard time, but I can share my experience.

As a teen (and especially a higher functioning teen), it becomes clear very quickly that society prioritizes certain skills and abilities. They'll learn very quickly that:

1) Academic success is paramount.
2) Athletic success is highly valuable.
3) Musical or artistic success is noteworthy.

All other interests are typically considered secondary, or negotiable. 

Beyond that, most high functioning teens spend the ages of 13-17 maximizing their life for one goal: getting into the best college possible. This looks like achieving in the above areas, but also includes doing community service, getting internships, finding good college references, and staying out of trouble. 

So, naturally, teens focus on these things. And they focus on them hard. As someone who was a teen as recently as the 1990s, I can tell you that this is a dramatic shift. While some people I knew growing up were trying to build out the college resume at the age of 14, most teens I knew were just focusing on being teens. If they joined a club it was because they were interested in a club. If they did community service it was because they found something they cared about. They were spending their non-school time doing things that felt interesting or important to them, by and large.

Teens today? Not in my experience. Time not spent building out the college resume is portrayed as time wasted. Time not spent adding to this resume is seen as a great opportunity cost - how will I get into an Ivy League School if my peers are willing to take on these sacrifices and I am not?

Teens naturally focus on building the resumes and skills needed to impress colleges, but what no one tells them is that this is an unsatisfying game to play. The problem is that there is ALWAYS more one could be doing to improve one's college resume, leaving little time to do much else (or to do much else without feeling guilty about it). 

So these young people invest their teenage years into getting into the college of their dreams, and some of them actually get there. What happens next? Again, it's only my experience, but I've seen that many of them show up for college very prepared academically and extracurricularly, but not personally.

Helping teens become more in touch with themselves

You see, many teens will not have had the same amount of time as teens past to spend time trying to figure out what makes them tick. They have less time to figure out what they are looking for in their friends. They're so focused on what they want to be "when they grow up" that they have little time to focus on who they are now.

And listen, I'm not passing any judgment on being ambitious or pursuing greatness. If teens are motivated for academic and financial success, more power to them. I'm just proposing something of a life balance, and I believe I have a reasonable solution.

Sleep-away summer camp. 

Tremendous growth can occur in even a couple of weeks away from the other things teens have to focus on. When kids are at camp they get a clean slate. Nobody comes as the "smart kid," nobody comes as the "jock," nobody comes as the "popular kid." The empowerment that comes from having to look inward and decide who one wants to be is incredible.

At Longacre, we layer on additional opportunities for growth as well. Young people that come here choose their own activities, helping them to practice setting their own schedule and using freedom wisely. Young people that come here are expected to actively help our community succeed, helping them gain confidence and accountability by doing important work that makes the whole camp go.

And perhaps more importantly, they practice communicating. They practice listening to others, and making themselves understood. When I've talked to teens in the past who have been struggling, it's so common to hear they feel misunderstood, or that they feel a lack of connection to others. Coming to sleep-away camp can't help but help with that.

Our teens focus all year long on improving in various ways. They have teachers and academic tutors to help with their grades, coaches to help with their sports, and experts to help them learn whatever instrument they play.

But what about their character? What about sculpting an internal voice of confidence, kindness, and courage? That's our job. And we think building those things is at least as important as building out the college resume. One could argue that 3-6 weeks isn't enough time to focus exclusively on building character, but at least it's something. 

And we're pretty proud to offer it.

Hope to see you on the farm this summer.