What Teens Really Want... Trust

I wrote this as I was prepping for camp with our teen leadership counselors who will be working with the teen campers this summer at Stomping Ground. I realized we hadn’t spent much time formalizing our philosophy for working with teens and wanted to have some common language to get started. We are facilitating a Teen Leadership Workshop starting April 9th for 4 weeks, all online, all for staff working with teens. Check it out. CIT/LIT Leaders Workshop. - Jack

What Teens really want…

To feel trusted.


Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, the founders of Self Determination Theory, posit that people are happiest and motivated when their three psychological needs are met. They define those needs as autonomy, belonging, and competence, the ABCs.

Quick aside, when we can get our staff to think about behavior from a “What needs aren’t being met?” perspective it is a game changer. Instead of “That kid is a bad kid.” we can reframe to a “Does Sarah not feel connected? How can I help?” mentality. This is way more effective and way more human.

OK BACK TO TEENS. For teens at camp, think about the three psychological needs.

Self Determination Theory


They spend almost the whole time trying to figure out how to build stronger connections. One of the big tools for connection is “just hanging out”. That is what most grownups do and that is a huge part of what teens are looking for. I think we do a pretty awesome job of helping teens and campers find belonging and connection.


This one is harder. How can we create autonomous, supportive spaces at camp while also making sure teens are safe and not hurting others? What about SEX?!


In Self-Determination Theory, they define competence as the ability to impact the world around you. This one is also hard at camp. Typically teens come for only some portion of the summer. Also, they claim they want more responsibility, but then, let’s be honest, they don’t always really follow through…


My take, Competence and Autonomy are really about feeling trusted. I don’t think our teens are looking for that much, they just want us to treat them like adults. We can’t just turn over the keys to camp, but luckily for us, the bar for this is so low because the message most teens get from the rest of the world is that they aren’t worthy of trust.  This provides us with a huge opportunity to connect with them, starting with reasonable trust.


5 Ways to Build Trust With Teens

(And let’s be honest… PEOPLE)

1) Tell them that you want to build trust with them.

This is the easiest one. On the first night of camp instead of starting with all the rules do a quick recap about how the world seems to tell them that they aren’t worthy of trust and that at camp you want to reverse that. You want to start with trust and realize that we will all mess up, but that you know they are worth trusting and you are excited to build trust with them.

2) Explain why things are the way they are at camp.


This part is a little harder. Now you have explained that you want to build trust, but you still need to set limits and boundaries. You still are the one who will “make” them do things all week. So explain why. Don’t just have an arbitrary bedtime. Have a bedtime and explain why they need to be quiet for the younger kids. Explain that you have to supervise them because it is the law and because that is the promise we made with their parents. Why can’t they talk about sex or curse? TELL THEM! Connect it to why camp exists and why they are here. If you can’t explain that then stop here and figure out why. Then practice explaining it.

3) Change something about camp when they ask.

Show the teens you value their input. No matter how well you explain your policies and try to make sense they will poke holes. Listen to them and try to change something to be better with their thoughts and ideas. When they push back on bedtime, see if you can do a couple of late nights further from the younger kids or a couple of sleep in days. By listening and then working with them to make a change at camp you are showing that they matter.

4) Ask them for help and share some of your mistakes

Vulnerability is the birthplace of connection. We are going to make mistakes with our teens and we are going to need their help. Instead of waiting for it to happen by accident let’s own it. A lot of times I tell our teens this story about how we tried camp with no bedtimes and what a disaster it was and then ask for some times they have messed up. To wrap it up, I let them know we will all make mistakes this session and it isn’t about the mistakes but how we all work through them together. Sometimes we end with a group pinky swear to have each other’s backs. It is camp after all.

5) Explain why you are at camp and ask them why they are here

This last one might be the most important and can be the easiest to forget. My friend, longtime The Summer Camp Society Member, director of YMCA Camp Minikani, and all around amazing guy, Peter Drews, once said


He was talking about working with staff improvement, but the idea is the same with teens and maybe just everything. This starts with getting on the same page with our teens about what they want from camp. Why are they here? What are they hoping for?

On the first day of camp just ask them. Start by sharing why you are at camp and what you are hoping for and then let them share. At first, my guess is you will get relatively superficial answers like “Make friends” “Do new stuff” “Because I loved last year.” That’s ok. Those are a great start. If you are successful, a huge part of your job will be better understanding the teens you are working with so you can better understand what they are wanting out of camp and struggling with in life. With that understanding, it becomes your job to partner with them to get more of what they are wanting while living in a complex camp community.


“I think it’s wild when people say ‘teens’ like they’re some big mysterious being we couldn’t possibly understand instead of just like humans?” - Tursh

As I talked more and more with Tursh, one of our teen leadership staff, she said the quote above. In the end, that is the mentality I hope we can get to at camp. Teens are just people. Each one is an individual with individual wants and needs. Certainly there are some different skills or techniques for working with teens than working with 6-year-olds, but we spend too much time labeling teens as teens and not enough time getting to know each individual.

Don’t forget to check out our teen leadership workshop designed for staff leading teens this summer.


Some Articles I Sent to Our Teen Leaders to Start the Conversation