Reflections & Insight

Camp Oasis – summer camp for kids with IBD

Developmental Challenges that are Overcome Through the Summer Camp Experience

For several summers, I had the wonderful opportunity to serve as the Camp Psychologist for Camp Oasis. For those of you not familiar with Camp Oasis, its mission “is to enrich the lives of children with Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis by providing a safe and supportive camp community” (CCFA). The principles that guide our mission include maintaining a safe environment, promoting respect, building nurturing relationships, providing skill-building opportunities, and of course, to have fun!

From a mental health perspective, I view this week as particularly important in being able to address specific developmental concerns that promote independence, separation and individuation issues. The children that come to camp are between the ages of 7 and 17 years old. This age range encompasses several significant developmental tasks that need to be accomplished in order for the child to move healthily to the next stage of development. Although our campers come from very different backgrounds, different family structures, cultures, and different socio-economic classes, they still share certain developmental traits with other children their age.

Erik Erikson, a renowned psychiatrist, developed a theory in which he describes eight developmental stages where a basic conflict needs to be resolved. Within these conflicts, each person confronts, and hopefully masters, new challenges. Each stage builds on the successful completion of earlier stages. Generally speaking, the stages of development and the corresponding conflicts to be resolved with which we deal at camp include the stage of 1) “Industry vs. Inferiority” (approximately ages 7 – 12) and 2) “Identity vs. Role Confusion” (approximately ages 13 – 17). During the stage of Industry vs. Inferiority, the child deals with the demands to learn new skills or they may risk feeling a sense of inferiority, failure, or incompetence. It is during this time that the child develops a sense of self-worth by refining skills through adhering to structured rules. Children in this stage strongly identify with same sex and age groups. Also, they want everyone to obey the rules and stated regulations. During the stage of Identity vs. Role Confusion, the teenager achieves a sense of identity in sex roles, occupation, politics, and religion. In addition, the adolescent works toward integrating many roles, i.e. child, student, athlete, worker, into a self-image under role model and peer pressure. During this stage he/she actually anticipates achievement and in fact, can achieve, rather than being paralyzed by feelings of inadequacy.

Living with a chronic illness presents its own set of challenges, especially for children during these particular stages of growth and development. And although the effects of Inflammatory Bowel Disease will be different for everyone, in general, one can expect the following issues to impact the child in some way during the specific stage of development.

During the developmental stage of Industry vs. Inferiority, the primary challenges our children face include:

  • Loss of control, autonomy, and competence
  • Feeling different from or isolation may result in feelings of anger, frustration, resentment, sadness and being left out.
  • Routines are interrupted
  • Ability to have control in making decisions is decreased or taken away completely
  • Their illness doesn’t follow the rules
  • Feelings of failure and incompetence

The summer camp experience provides a fertile ground in which these primary challenges can be confronted and met. In this environment, the ways in which we offer our campers the opportunities to meet these challenges include:

  • Encouraging them to talk about interests, skills, abilities
  • Providing opportunities whenever possible to make choices and be in control
  • Allowing camper to take responsibility for self-care and treatments
  • Offering comfort and reassurance
  • Providing camp activities which promote expression of feelings and opportunities for mastery of new skills

During the developmental stage of Identity vs. Role Confusion, the primary challenges our teenagers confront include:

  • Issues of self-esteem, independence and body image which can be negatively

Impacted by hospitalizations and side effects of medication

  • Loss of control and privacy
  • Inability to gain independence from family
  • Behavioral changes which may include withdrawal, isolation, and regression

During the summer camp experience for these adolescents, their developmental tasks are addressed by:

  • Respecting who they are and their need to privacy
  • Offering them true responsibility; allowing them to contribute meaningfully
  • Predicting their success; pointing out belief in them/their ability
  • Offering special privileges and allowing campers to have a say in their program planning
  • Offering separate times for boys only, girls only, and co-ed interactions

On the last day of camp, I asked several campers what was their biggest challenge that they confronted and overcame during the week. Everyone with whom I spoke felt a strong sense of pride in him/herself by their attempts and accomplishments, with peer support, all of the activities that the camp experience offers. One camper shared with me that she just could not believe she had “the guts” to do the things that the summer camp environment provides.

The growth and changes that our campers experience during their week at Camp Oasis is remarkable. It is truly a positive experience in helping these children grow up knowing they are not alone in their health challenges and that they are fully capable of enjoying the normalcy of summer camp in a safe and supportive environment where everyone is basically the same.

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