Kris’ Corner-Kids From Hard Places at Summer Camp

by Andra Martinez

You guys…I realized that I need to pause in the middle of the series about “What I Wish I Knew” to share a little bit about what’s been going on in our lives and encourage those of you who may be struggling with the idea of letting a kid from hard places attend a camp. 

Now, there are clearly all sorts of camps…mornings only, evenings only, overnight/sleepover, day camp. I could go on…but from my own personal experience, I’ll only be talking about day camp, but there are definitely aspects which are applicable to other camps as well. 

 My youngest son is seven. And two years ago, before Covid, he attended a day camp. It was an all-day program from 9 to 4 each day for a week. Because he was going to kindergarten at the time, and the camp was designed for first through fifth grade, I asked special permission for him to just attend the morning sessions. In addition, I was there the entire time, in the background in case he (or the counselors) needed me.  

During that first attempt, there was not a whole lot of self-regulation happening on his end. So, we’d come home from camp, eat a quick lunch and then spend the afternoon at the pool, working out our sensory input needs, dysregulation and energy. 

This year, however, since he’s going into second grade, he was able to attend the full day of camp. And even though my mama heart was anxious (read: nervous…not that “excited” definition of anxious) about that, I signed him up.  

And in the interest of full disclosure…this camp takes place at our church, where my husband works. So, I knew that his dad would be there all day. Additionally, after I signed him up, I was asked to run the kitchen for lunches for all the campers. So, I, too, ended up being there all day. 

I won’t lie. In spite of the fact that BOTH of his parents (and actually one of his brothers was there too…he was a camp counselor) were going to be there all day, every day, I was probably more nervous all week than he was.  

And I’m going to pause here to note something: I know that most people don’t have the luxury of sending their child to a camp where three family members will be there to swoop in and help if need be…but my point in telling you this is that in spite of having this available to him, it did not stop his anxiety, my anxiety or the fact that I had to advocate for him. Even though we were all there, we were intentionally trying not to helicopter and hover…we know he (and any child with trauma) will never truly realize what he is capable (or not quite capable) of until he’s given the opportunity. 

Granted, he was clearly nervous on the first day. Even on the evening prior to the first day, he was definitely escalated. His anxiety was in full affect. And I considered how I could possibly keep him from going to camp…because I didn’t want him to fail. He struggles with EXACTLY the kind of situation he was walking into and I didn’t want him to not be successful. 

But before we left the house that first morning (not going to lie…on every morning), and on the way to camp, we talked about all the things I knew he’d need to remember to survive. And, dare I dream it? Not just survive, but thrive. 

So, we talked about the issues he struggles with, I gave him his gum (which is his sensory go-to survival tool). And gave him a big hug and kiss, and off he went to join the group.  

And as difficult as that was for me, I know it was difficult for him as well. He knew many of the teenagers who were running the camp, but not nearly as many of the campers. He didn’t know the schedule; he didn’t exactly know what was coming next.  

And for a child that does not always self-regulate (though we’ve been working on it at home and through therapy for years), that can be daunting, crushing, or completely debilitating. But he was ready and willing to try it, so I owed it to him to let him try. 

I won’t lie…the week was nowhere close to perfect. It wasn’t even always great. Trauma is always there, ready to jump out, sometimes when we least expect it, sometimes when the ride is going smoothly and we almost forget that it’s there. That’s often when it will show itself.  

But for five days in a row, from 9am to 4pm, my child from hard places was flying solo without me. And overall, in spite of the bumps along the way, he did a fantastic job…not by the world’s standards, but by the sheer fact that he did it. 

And by Friday he was happy, and exhausted, and feeling all the things you hope to feel after a week of camp 

So how did we make this happen? In addition to all the hard emotional work we’d been doing in the years leading up to this, I will say they were a couple other things that helped us out. Much like a child at school with an IEP might, I asked for some caveats for him; he was given permission to have a sensory break during lunch if he wanted it. He only opted for it on the last two days, and I think it was a lifesaver for him. He definitely could have used it the first three days as well, but we tried to let him make the decision for himself, as best he could. So, during his break, he was allowed to sit with someone else (an adult) for a little bit and have some screen time while he ate lunch.  

All that noise and excitement which you want to happen at camp can be too much for a child who has sensory processing disorder…or trauma of any kind, quite frankly. So just having that break gave him the opportunity to take a few breaths and step out of the chaos for a bit.  

Also, at this camp, there were some teens who were a little more trauma informed than most, and understood how to not allow him to get away with behavior but remind him of what he needed to do and then redirect him to something else. And not send him back in to a situation where he would not be successful and allow him to make the same mistake over and over. And for those who did not know how to work with trauma in this way, I took a few minutes to give them a brief run-down…letting them know this works pretty much with all kids, not just ones with trauma history. 

Once the leaders grasped that, it was a game changer for my son. And for the leaders as well. I could see on their faces a decrease in their frustration, and a sense of empathy and compassion that was not there initially.  

So, the bottom line on camp is this…know what your child is probably capable of, know what tools he needs to help him succeed, and most of all, allow him the opportunity to test the waters.  

I know it’s super scary. I was quite honestly terrified to let him test his wings. But all the work that we’ve been doing up to this point…it all came together and really showed itself in that week.  

And I say all this so that you will know that even though sometimes you might feel alone, or isolated, or that people don’t understand your child… It’s not always that they don’t want to know. They are just ignorant.  

By the way, that word “ignorant” gets bad rap…what I simply mean is that people don’t know what they don’t know. I’m certain there was a time when you didn’t know about trauma or its effects on a brain. But now that you know, you can help educate others…just as I am attempting too as well.  

And most of all, I hope this gives you courage to allow your child with trauma to try new things! 

Sincerely, 

Kris