January 25, 2018

Camp Kid Power at the U-M Department of Psychiatry helps young children overcome disabling anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder

Day camp helps children develop and refine executive functioning skills

A 2014 paper in the published Journal of Clinical Adolescent Psychology found that preschool anxiety prevalence affects up to 20 percent of children. And, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, anxiety disorders are very common. An estimated 40 million adults in the U.S. (18 percent) have an anxiety disorder. Early intervention is key.

The U-M Department of Psychiatry launched Camp Kid Power in the summer of 2017 to help young children, typically aged between 4-6 who are suffering from severe anxiety. Many of these children are unable to participate in typical activities because their anxiety is so crippling. For example, one Camp Kid Power attendee was unable to play games for fear of making mistakes. Another was pulled out of preschool for poor behavior due to high distress and anxiety. Others may ruminate on unfulfilled expectations for too long –such as a desired snack never coming. The key is an unusual duration or intensity in the behavior. Our clinicians ask the question: are these behaviors impairing normal life? If so, Camp Kid Power could help.


“One of our initial consults took four hours because the child had such severe social and separation anxiety and would not come out from hiding under the table,” Kate Fitzgerald, M.D., principal investigator said. “Once he completed our camp he was interacting with kids and talking to adults, which was a major improvement.”

Adults with anxiety are usually treated through a combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy (known as CBT). Older children and adolescents also respond well to CBT. However, CBT can be less effective for preschool-aged children with anxiety so child psychiatrists need to employ other techniques for the very young.

At Camp Kid Power, participants are led through a series of games designed specifically to assess their self-regulatory control. Self-regulation theory (SRT) is a “system of conscious personal management that involves the process of guiding one's own thoughts, behaviors, and feelings to reach goals.” Children are trained to have self-regulatory control through games. The games target three types of executive function: 1) impulse control, 2) selective attention to complete a task, and 3) working memory. Overall, camp is designed to strengthen these three skills, thus reducing anxiety.

There are pre and post visits for camp so that clinicians can determine whether there has been a symptom change before and after camp. Executive functioning skill levels are tested while the children wear an electroencephalography (EEG) cap. For the testing, children play basic computer games with simple rules. The EEG allows for monitoring of electrical activity in the brain.

Games played include the computer games at the pre-camp visit, Red Light Green Light, Track It (magic trick with cups), Taboo for Kids, and others. The games are never meant to inspire competitive behavior. It is stressed that there are no winners. While playing, campers and ‘counselors’ talk through how to fix problem or a “mess up.” This is known as reflection training.

Parents are also involved during portions of camp and are given homework assignments to complete with their children. This emphasizes parent-child communication and interaction. Parents also are trained on what triggers their children’s behavior and how it can be adjusted. Principal Investigators Maria Muzik, M.D. and Katherine Rosenblum, Ph.D., are exploring how to best support Kids Camp parents through opportunities for learning and reflection training.

“Our ‘homework’ is designed to be fun, while at the same time supporting kid’s mastery of skills. Parents appreciate the opportunity to be involved and learn about how building these skills can help their kids overcome anxiety,” said Dr. Rosenblum.

The next Camp Kid Power session will be held in February 2018. For more information about this program please contact the Kid Power team at [email protected]. Learn more about the Department of Psychiatry’s Child and Adolescent services here.