In the Trenches: Helping Parents Understand Children's Complaints

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter

Dear
Bob,

We had an eight-year-old camper at our day camp last summer who went home every
evening and complained to her mother about how she had no friends, how camp
was not any fun, and how her counselors treated her poorly. As a result, her
parents, who were understandably concerned about her happiness and well-being
at camp, called us many times.

When we looked into the situation, we found a carefree, fun-loving little
girl, loved by her counselors, who for 6 hours and 59 minutes of a 7-hour
day was having an absolute blast. While her parents wanted to believe
us, none of us could quite explain the daily gripe sessions she held
with her mom. We were genuinely perplexed by her behavior, especially
since when we talked about it with her, she admitted to us that she loved
camp.

Do you have any thoughts that could shed light on how better to understand
this phenomenon? What could we say to reassure her parents, her mother
in particular, who experienced the girl's daily laments?

By the way, this girl had a serious bought with leukemia three years
ago, from which she is in complete remission. Whether this has any bearing
on the situation, we don't know.

- Perplexed

Dear Perplexed,

I am sure that what you describe - children who, in the face of all
evidence to the contrary, complain long and loud to their parents about
how miserable they are at camp - is familiar to day and resident camp
professionals alike. I have observed children who are ostensibly well-integrated
at camp burst into sudden tears during phone conversations with their
parents and spin woeful tales in letters destined for home.

This "reporting-misery-to-parents" behavior (I sometimes call it "wailing
of woes") is actually a type of joining behavior that many children exhibit.
Joining is the act of coming together or connecting with significant
people in our lives. It is a fundamental aspect of all relationships.
If you understand it, you can be more helpful and understanding, as well
as less judgmental, with campers and parents.

As your example demonstrates, young children often preserved their connection
with their parents through similar behavior. Sharing misery, which children
do almost intuitively, evokes in parents a need to care and protect,
which is exactly the effect their children are unconsciously looking
for! It is this display of concern that reassures children about the
love and loyalty their parents have for them, and vice versa.

The child's complaints set in motion a dance of interdependency where
the child re-experiences the bond between himself or herself and his
or her parent, and the parent feels needed, important, and legitimate
as a caretaker. In the words of Bob Ednick, of Coleman Country Day Camp,
this exchange of concern and worry becomes "the campfire" around which
parent and child feel close and together.

While all of this is natural, more or less Mother Nature's way of reinforcing
the care and protection of children, it can become stifling and inhibit
a child's growth and sense of expanding self-esteem. Explaining this
situation to parents is a way of saying that their concern is simply
evidence of their being good parents and that their child does not need
coddling, but reassurance about the parents' belief that the child can
manage.

In the case of your young camper, her complaints may be a remnant from
her illness, when she and her parents truly had something to worry about
and bonded around the fear and misery of her illness. The little girl
is simply holding onto a behavior that once brought her a tremendous
sense of closeness with her parents. Once her parents understand this,
and see it not as bad, but as evidence of the child's love for them,
they can move beyond it by bonding with her around her success at camp
rather than around her worries and fears about mistreatment.

You might also take some candid photographs of the complaining camper
to show parents. As we know, a picture is worth a thousand words; it
can help to allay parents' fears when used in conjunction with the explanation
I have offered above.

Counselors Joining with Campers

While I visit camps in the summer, I often hear counselors complain
about how rude or defiant their campers are. Children's behavior can
be frustrating to young adult counselors who are not yet parents. However,
when I hear counselors complain about what may be very real defiant and
unsavory attitudes, I wonder whether these same counselors have put in
the time and the energy needed to truly bond with their campers. This
is another side of joining.

Many counselors are threatened by the task of getting campers to work
together, live in harmony, and clean things up. The task is more easily
accomplished when counselors can identify with and enjoy their campers.
When children sense that adults take a true interest in them and value
them as real people, they are more willing to be cooperative, helpful,
and reasonable. While rewards and other incentives can be helpful, the
most powerful motivator for most children is the true interest of a significant
adult - one who balances adventure with limit setting while always conveying
a sense of caring. Today, children respect nurturing authority, as a
combination, more than either characteristic by itself. The most valuable
thing supervisors can do at camp is to encourage their counselors to
join with their campers.

This article first appeared in the November/December 1996 issue of Camping
Magazine
.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing
in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for
Bunk1.com and can be reached via e-mail at InTheTrenches@bunk1.com or
by fax at 617-572-3373. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by American
Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 1999 September/October
issue of Camping Magazine.

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