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Raising Awareness to Reduce Bullying in Summer Camps

By Joel D. Haber, Ph.D.

Think back to your elementary/grade school years, and ask yourself if you can recall the top three favorite memories of your childhood. They probably involve something loving, connecting, or good to eat. Now, do the same for the least favorite memories, and for many of us, there’s  a painful memory of bullying that we may recall. Many of us can’t remember what we had for lunch last week, but can remember in exquisite detail the memory of a bully—and the hurt and suffering we experienced. In the past, bullying was assumed to be a rite of passage and something that “you just had to go through” as part of growing up. Although the bullying may have happened on the way to and from school or during recess, no one really talked about it—let alone did anything about it. Those of us involved with summer camp thought that camp was an escape and refuge from the school bully.

The most important thing to realize is that the first step toward making your camp a bully-free environment is “awareness.” No more living in denial of the problem, but rather committed to keeping an open mind and a clear perspective of your environment—a comprehensive view that gives you proper influence and management of what is happening in camp.

Bullying Behavior

Wherever children gather to study and/or play, the potential for hurtful behavior by children against one another is possible. Studies in schools         reveal that approximately 11 percent of children are bullied repeatedly and that 13 percent frequently bully others. Repeated hurtful behavior against a child can result in damage to their physical and emotional development. This damage is not limited to the victim though: the bully as well as the onlookers who do not intervene may also suffer both short and long-term consequences.

Bullying 101: What Is It?

Bullying is any intentional, hurtful act, committed by one or more campers against another. It can also be committed by counselors against other counselors or campers. In fact it can happen when anyone in power  or seeking power intentionally hurts another person. It is not fighting (between equals) or rough play. Fighting between equals is really an escalation of conflict. Rough play is normal between kids, but has a safety net built in. If one kid says stop—it’s over.

Types of Bullying Behavior Seen in Camp

Bullying behavior is divided into three types: Physical, Relational, and Verbal.  These behaviors are further divided into mild, moderate, and severe, which can help define the extent of the problem and determine if a certain type of bullying behavior is escalating. Bullying behavior usually has an escalating pattern—it generally starts out mildly to give the bullying child a chance to observe a victim’s reaction. This can escalate in severity if the victim does not send a signal to the bully that this behavior is unacceptable. For example, bullying that begins as a physical type can escalate in severity with more physical bullying or move into other forms, like exclusion and verbal harassment.


Physical bullying is the type of bullying most easily observed and most commonly thought of when we talk about bullying. This includes punching, hitting, shoving, hair pulling, excessive tickling, cutting in line, rat-tailing, defacing personal property, or stealing one’s belongings. It’s observed in the camp environment in many forms—a child’s stuffed animal is stolen or destroyed, a child is knocked down in front of others, a chair is pulled out from a child before he or she sits down, a child is physically bruised over and over again. It also includes crossing over into one’s personal space when a child is told not to. This can make a camper very uncomfortable and intimidated.


Verbal bullying involves hurtful name-calling, mocking, teasing, gossiping, intimidation, or threatening to embarrass a child. Verbal bullying is harder to observe unless you are within earshot of it. The hurtful unwarranted nickname, comments about clothes, or being told that you are unpopular can all be meant to undermine a child’s self-worth. Verbal bullying has to be included as bullying behavior because of its insidious nature. How vulnerable is a child when a painful comment like “nobody in this bunk likes you” is expressed to an unsuspecting camper?

Types of Bullying We Don’t See

There is evidence of a high prevalence of counselors who bully campers and/or each other. A counselor who bullies is a particularly difficult problem, because children are dependant on the staff person for safety. This type of counselor behavior may set a model that allows campers to test out their own bullying behavior—and creates an escalation of bullying in their campers because it is seen as an acceptable form of behavior. It is also a problem if a child is dependant on his or her counselor and feels afraid to report aggressive behavior to the counselor’s superior.

I have also witnessed a camper or group of campers bully counselors. When children feel a greater level of power over an adult, it creates a significant problem in the bunk. Staff may be reluctant to report this for fear of their own job loss and embarrassment in front of their peers—as  well as feeling a decrease in personal status among their peers.

The Bullies and the Victims

The Bullies

Today’s bullies are not necessarily the big school yard brutes who have low self-esteem and are looking to improve  their feelings of inadequacy by bullying. A camp bully may be popular, seek social status, be smart, well-connected, and even well liked. Some may look like “mean girls” and some may not. They are more comfortable with aggression and use this to earn social rewards by making others uncomfortable and hurting them. Usually these skills outweigh any empathic side. They are masters at denial—and blame. The problem is that many of these kids look and feel like “leaders.” Leaders may be hard to differentiate from a bully because they may have the same qualities—except they lack empathy and a willingness to look at their own personal responsibility for their behavior. One way to remember this when looking at your campers or staff—leaders are inclusive and bullies tend to be exclusive.

The Victims

Victims on the other hand, are kids who are “vulnerable” in some way and feel less socially connected. A camper who is alone, less socially assertive, passive, meek, or quiet may be an easy target. Bullies test out their power until they find a target that  won’t fight back—or won’t get the social support they need from others around them. When bullies see they can brutalize someone, they seek the support of others to blame the victim for their “deserved” attack. There are always reasons that bullies find to hurt others, even though no one deserves to get bullied.

The “Observers”

Remember the statistics cited earlier about the number of kids involved as bullies and victims. In any bullying situation, there are approximately 80 percent of kids or more who may observe bullying but may do nothing to stop it. When victims see that observers do not step in and help them, or counselors do not intercede, the victims feel worse. The observers try to justify their own unhelpful behavior. They themselves begin to “blame” the victim for the bullying they receive. This cycle makes the victim feel even more bullied.


Boys vs. Girls

Boys are generally seen as more physically strong, so we believe that boys use physical forms of aggression more than any other type. Not so. Boys tease and use relational forms of aggression in summer camp more than they do physical forms of aggression. Although “rough and tumble” play is common in boys, they have become sophisticated in their ways to hurt verbally and exclude other kids. These forms of aggression can leave scars for boys who emotionally do not know how to handle these feelings.

Girls are much more comfortable with “indirect” forms of communication and use verbal teasing and exclusion more than double their use of physical forms of aggression. Gossiping and exclusion are the two most common forms of bullying for girls—and it has almost become a “universal language” for them. The problem in camps occurs when counselors model this behavior, so campers feel justified in their behavior.

Younger vs. Older

Bullying generally moves from physical forms to verbal and relational forms as children hit teenage years. As physical forms of bullying decrease by high school, the verbal and relational forms can still maintain themselves. This is why we must work to create camp environments in which this behavior is not allowed. Camp has to be a place that is different for children and allows them to thrive socially without the emotional and/or physical safety fears of bullying.

School Bullying vs. Camp Bullying

School bullying occurs in the cafeteria, at recess, in the hallway, or  in bathrooms—anywhere that supervision is lean. Bullying in the classroom happens less frequently because the classroom is a structured place and the power (teacher) is close by. School environments generally have much less supervision for their children outside the classroom.

The camp environment is generally more relaxed than a school environment. Bullying occurs during free time, in the shower when kids are vulnerable, or at night when counselors may be outside the bunk. The more subtle forms of bullying, like teasing and exclusion, can happen when groups of kids are away from their counselors or have less supervision. It can also happen around a counselor—if that staff person sees nothing wrong with this behavior and is complicit in it. One of the best markers for finding vulnerable and potentially victimized children is to watch your bunks and observe those campers who don’t have someone to walk with, or find the camper who is always late to leave the bunk and doesn’t feel part of the bunk community.

The Key

The key to all of this is that kids come to camp to broaden their social network, improve their skills, and feel good about themselves. For up to two months in a summer, children need a place to feel safe with supervision that is willing to step in and provide opportunities for them to thrive.

Camp has to be a place where physical and emotional safety is paramount—to ensure that children have the opportunities to grow. Without this, camps do not separate themselves from other institutions. You can make a difference by being very proactive about bullying reduction and prevention. Begin with awareness, and you’ve taken the first step toward action.#

Joel D. Haber, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and founder of the Respect U program. He has held positions at University of Alabama, Birmingham Medical School, White Plains Hospital Center and New York Medical College         and has authored numerous articles and led conference sessions on topics including bullying, building resilience in children and positive parenting. For more information about the Respect U program, visit www.ACAcamps.org/bullying .

Originally published in the 2006 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.



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