When Tempers Flare

By Jean Huelsing
Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Elenathewise

During this summer, like summers before, there will be camp drama. This drama can cause emotional hurt, which is typically a trigger for anger.

Anger, often thought of as a substitute emotion, is a learned behavior. Children learn how to express anger from role models—parents, teachers, and coaches. Campers arrive with a wide variety of these learned behaviors. People become angry because they don’t want to feel the pain associated with the cause of what triggered the anger.  Campers may project the pain onto someone else to further remove it. All of the underlying anguish, sadness, frustration, or isolation can lead to anger, which becomes a habit for self-preservation. Anger protects them from ever having to deal with the real problems under the surface.

Anger can be both helpful and hurtful. It is helpful when the reasoning part of the brain is turned on because it stands up for the self. It is hurtful when the anger triggers others to become angry, which can escalate a situation. When control is lost and emotion takes over, this intense rage can lead to catastrophic reactions and violence.

The good news is that camp can provide a solution to end violence. Training staff members to practice anger-management skills allows each camper to witness alternative ways to deal with negative emotions in an appropriate manner.

Establish Boundaries
For this approach to be successful, staff members must first gain the campers’ confidence by establishing themselves as a leader. However, members cannot be dominating or overly critical of campers. To maintain this confidence, praise good behavior rather than just criticize bad behavior. Discuss with all campers the rights of others and courtesies due them. Talk about the triggers that may anger people—borrowing items without asking, invading personal space, or talking poorly about other campers or situations. Teach campers how to ask for what they need. For example, “I feel angry when you go into my stuff to get shampoo without asking. Would you please ask to use it instead of just taking it?” Let campers know others will be more accepting if each camper asks for what he or she needs and maintains self-control.

Dealing With Anger
The next step is to develop strategies for campers to deal with anger at its onset so they will stay in control of volatile feelings. Suggest taking a few deep breaths and thinking before reacting. This is how the reasoning part of the brain is turned on and involved. Some people still count to 10, the purpose of which is to slow down the anger-reaction process. Removing themselves from what is triggering their anger or trying to find something funny in the situation also slows down the reaction. Give permission to campers to create workable options; for example, campers may use exercise—such as walking—to calm down, but must be able to make eye contact with a counselor at all times. If in a place where immediate exercise is not an option, show campers how muscle tightening and relaxation will promote tension release. Any one of these strategies will work at one time or other. Encourage campers to try them all.

Enforce The Rules
Policies and procedures are important in promoting safety at camp. Key policies—such as forbidding weapons, locking up activity equipment when not in use, and prohibiting drugs and alcohol on the premises—will create a safer environment. Staff members should be aware of potential triggers. All camps should have a policy that states, “Any exertion of force by a camper with the intent to do serious injury to another person while at camp will not be tolerated,” and make sure staff members know how to enforce the policy.

For some camps, that enforcement means contacting local authorities. This is a slippery slope. It may result in juvenile detention for the offenders, and will definitely complicate life when state lines are involved. Typically, this action results in angry parents, too. This should not come as a surprise since campers have learned their behavior from someone who just may be the parent.

Most people agree that communication is vital in these instances; in fact, it is the key. Staying close to the situation and trying to understand the circumstances may prevent it from getting out of control. An angry person who is talking has the reasoning part of the brain turned on and will not permit irrational thinking. To alert head staff of escalating behavior requiring additional assistance, use the term “Code Yellow” on a walkie-talkie or cell phone. A unified response sends a message to the entire camp that this behavior is not acceptable and will be dealt with appropriately.

Diffusing A Situation
If a fight breaks out, separate the involved campers immediately. Let your voice show calm, mature authority. Attempt to give the parties time to cool down. Watch facial expressions to indicate a lessening of tension. Disallow any angry verbal exchanges, and physically remove campers to a “safe distance” from each other, where you can discuss the situation with each one. Emphasize resolving the problem, not placing blame. Hold a face-to-face conversation in which each participant describes their version without interruption from the other. Attempt to help each see the other side, and then reconcile the differences. Aim for a make-up plan and guide the pair to assist with the consequences. If there is an injury, administer medical treatment, if necessary. Parents should be contacted if there is harm done, and an incident report should be completed. If clear provocation can be established, supply a logical, consistent, creative, and caring consequence, which can be understood by those involved. Campers need structure, and they need to know what to expect to feel safe with their thoughts and actions.

Uninterrupted anger will always override rational thought. Help campers learn to think before reacting. Help them gather complete evidence about the situation before accusing someone, and help them realize the various ways to look at difficult situations. In the heat of the moment, the challenge is to see the other person’s point of view.

Jean Huelsing RN, BSN, Med, is the Founder of Camp Jump Start and CEO of the Living Well Foundation. Reach her at jean@livingwellvillage.org .