The Sleep Away Camp Jitters

As the school year winds down, parents and kids are beginning to shift their focus to preparing for going to sleep away camp: dragging the camp trunk out of the attic, sewing names onto tee shirts and shorts, and buying new swimsuits and fresh sun block bottles.  The excitement of summer camp, however, is often mixed with the anxiety of going off to camp — perhaps for the first time. Even kids who are not particularly anxious often get a little nervous as this summer event approaches.  The apprehension can manifest itself in dreams and nightmares and general irritability. Parents should expect some separation anxiety when their kids leave home, whether they are heading to camp for a week or the entire summer. But there are simple things parents can do to alleviate childrens’ anxiety.

Ideas to help your child prepare for and adjust to camp are:

  • Talk to your child about all aspects of what to expect while they are at camp, acknowledging any feelings of sadness, fear, and worry.  Help your child reassess his anxious thinking.  Anxious children often have extreme thinking — worrying about the worst thing that could happen.  Ask your child what his biggest fear is, and talk him through it.
  • Be a model of confidence, yet show empathy.  Make it clear you understand that being away from home can be scary, but show that you are confident your child will be okay.  Kids pick up anxiety, so if you’re anxious, they probably will be too.
  • Begin a countdown and checklist of things to do to get ready for camp.
  • Discuss the camp’s policies regarding communication between camper and parents, so it is not a surprise.
  • Visit the camp to become familiar with the cabin and the location of the activities.
  • Focus on all of the good things about camp.Talk about all the exciting things your child will do and learn over the summer. Remember, camp is about learning new things and meeting new people, all of which builds a child’s self-confidence.
  • Let your child know what you will be doing while they are away, but don’t make your plans sound too interesting.
  • Make a plan to send letters and care packages.
  • Give your child something from home to bring with her.  Whether it’s a love note, a picture of the family dog or her bedroom, a reminder of home will comfort some children.  Be mindful, however, that this may have the opposite effect on some children, and make them pine for home all the more.
  • On the day of departure, keep the goodbyes short. Lingering will just delay the agony and confuse your child.

Despite your best efforts, chances are your child may experience some homesickness.  A study of 329 boys between the ages of 8 and 16 at sleep away camp found that 83 percent of the boys reported feeling homesick at least once and 7 percent reported feeling severely homesick.

If your child does experience homesickness while at camp, consider these recommendations:

  • Acknowledge your child’s homesickness, but reaffirm to your child that they can work through it and will have a great time.
  • Keep writing letters and postcards to your child.
  • Know that your child will write letters, when homesick, that will exaggerate the experience and make you feel guilty.  Remember that letters take several days to reach you, often allowing time for the feelings of homesickness to subside. So, avoid the temptation to jump in the car and pick your child up.
  • Know that when dealing with homesickness there are stages.  In the beginning your child needs support and then they need firmness. The words, “you’re staying at camp” are what your child is waiting to hear and is a vote of confidence that you know that your child can succeed.

When choosing a camp, it is important for parents to know that they can rely on the counselors and directors to take good care of their child.  Ask your camp about how they handle homesickness and the amount of communication they will have with you.  Expect open communication with the camp staff regularly on and through the homesickness passing.  If you work as a team your child will greatly benefit from the entire camp experience and have a sense of accomplishment.