BY NEMOURS MAR 2018
HELPING YOUR CHILD COPE WITH BEING AWAY FROM HOME WHILE AT CAMP
You expected your child to make friends at camp, explore the great outdoors, and fill those long summer days with fun. But within a couple of days, your child is calling you on the phone, pleading to come home. What do you do?
It’s hard for kids and parents to deal with homesickness. No parent wants to see his or her child unhappy, especially so far away from home. But most parents also know that, if given time, the majority of kids do happily adjust. Trying to figure out what’s right for your child in this situation can be difficult, so read on for some tips.
When Homesickness Strikes at Overnight Camp
Homesickness is a type of anxiety that children sometimes experience when they’re away from home. It’s extremely common: One study found that 83% of children who attended overnight camps experienced at least mild homesickness. And it’s no wonder—separation from a parent or parents is one of the strongest fears that kids have.
Homesickness occurs in people of all ages and of either gender, but it does tend to lessen with age. As children get older and have more successful stays away from home, they are better able to put their feelings in perspective—and they also learn that missing home doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy their time away. This type of thinking is much harder for younger children, especially those who are away for the first time. For these children, going to camp or even spending a week with Grandma can be a little more difficult.
Once away, kids who are homesick tend to feel sad and depressed. They may cry, be unwilling to participate in activities, withdraw from others, find it difficult to sleep, or engage in attention-seeking behavior (for example, getting into trouble).
Some kids may also experience physical symptoms, even though there’s nothing medically wrong with them. Common complaints include stomachache, sore throat, headache, nausea, minor aches and pains, or flu-like symptoms.
For many kids, attending sleepaway camp is their first real experience with leaving home, and they may greet the opportunity with excitement, fear, or a little of both. But other emotional reactions are also common. Younger children, for example, may view being sent to camp as a type of rejection—especially if they weren’t included in the decision to go. That’s why it’s important to understand what your child thinks and feels about the impending separation before it actually occurs. If, despite the preparation, your child still objects to going to camp, he or she just might not be ready to make this step, and you may want to come up with alternate plans.
Helping Your Child Cope
Some of the things you can do to ensure a smooth transition should occur well before your child leaves.
For one thing, make sure that your child actually wants to go. Don’t send your child just because you think it will be a good way to overcome shyness or because everyone else in the family went to camp at that age. Remember, there’s no right age to begin camp (if a child goes at all), and what’s right for one child isn’t necessarily right for another.
Once you determine that your child is ready for camp, there are some steps you can take to help head off homesickness. The American Camping Association (ACA) offers the following suggestions:
- Include your child in the decision of what camp to choose. Look at the brochures together, visit if possible, and talk or meet with other children who have gone there. Children who have input in the decision are more likely to feel a sense of ownership over it and to be happier with its outcome. Plus, you’ll be able to see what your child likes about one camp over another.
- Discuss your expectations for the separation, as well as your child’s—including why he or she is going and what you hope your child will gain from the experience. Prepare your child for any uncertainties he or she might feel and acknowledge those concerns, but don’t focus on the negatives. Always express confidence that your child will do just fine.
- Encourage your child’s independence, and have practice separations. These can include spending one night at a friend’s house or going to day camp before sleepaway camp. These mini-separations will boost your child’s confidence and help ease the transition to being away from home.
- Discuss topics like set times to call or how often you’ll write. Remember that many camps have policies—like no phone calls for the first week—to allow campers the time they need to adjust. Know what procedures are in place, and discuss them so your child knows what to expect.
- Together, visit the place your child will be staying. Children fear the unknown, especially when it comes to a change in their routine. Kids may wonder, “Where will I sleep? Where will I eat? Where will I go to the bathroom?” Visiting will let your child become at least a little familiar with the setting and will show that you’re comfortable with it, too.
- Communicate with the camp. If you think your child may get homesick, let the camp counselors know ahead of time. Most are trained to handle this problem and are ready to give extra TLC to an unhappy camper.
- Involve your child in the packing. Let your son or daughter bring a favorite T-shirt or a special stuffed animal. Familiar items will help make your child more comfortable in the new surroundings.
- Make departure time cheerful. Set the right tone by talking about the fun your child will have and expressing your confidence in him or her.
- Don’t bribe or make promises to bring your child home early if he or she doesn’t like it. This could send the message that you don’t think your child will be able to handle the separation.
- Have a care package or note already waiting for your child on the first day, if the camp allows this. This will reassure your child that you care and you’re thinking of him or her.
Write often, focusing on the positives (the friends your child is making, the things he or she is learning, his or her favorite activity, etc.). Avoid dwelling on how much you miss your child or rattling off a list of things he or she is missing at home. This could make the separation even harder.
Put together a calendar that shows the days at camp, the days you plan to visit or call, and when your child will return home. A calendar will give your child a more tangible sense of time.
If You Get a “Rescue Call”
Be aware that, despite this preparation, your child may still become homesick, at least for the first couple days. If you get a teary “rescue call,” try not to overreact or feel guilty. Be reassuring, and encourage your child to participate—say how excited you are to hear about all the new things your child is doing. Most important, stay calm and upbeat, because children take their cues from the people they look up to most.
Though it may be difficult, resist the urge to take your child home immediately, especially if there are no physical symptoms. Homesickness may worsen when a child has downtime—during early morning, rest hour, and just before bed, for example—and it can be contagious. That’s why most camps pack a child’s day with activities; they know that children who engage in distracting activities and seek social support are generally less homesick. Most cases of homesickness resolve once a child makes a new friend or finds an enjoyable activity, so give it a little time.
You might also want to talk with a counselor to find out how your child is doing. Camp counselors are used to dealing with homesick children and their worried parents, and checking in with them can probably put your mind at ease.
When to Cut the Separation Short
For the majority of kids, bouts of homesickness are normal occurrences that eventually pass. However, for a small percentage of kids, homesickness may be severe, causing symptoms of panic and depression. If you find that your child has not been eating or sleeping for an extended period of time, or the homesickness interferes with daily activities, you may need to talk about some things that the camp or the counselors can do to help your child. Familiar routines can alleviate anxiety, so see if the counselors can provide some foods that your child likes, or discuss your child’s bedtime routine so that the counselors can provide something similar.
If the problems persist and there’s talk of sending your child home, you may want to visit your child first. If the visit helps, consider promising your child to visit again. If visiting isn’t possible or doesn’t help, you may want to bring your child home. When eating, sleeping, and daily activities are significantly disrupted, your child is not benefiting from the experience, and it’s wise to just call it a day. No one knows your child as well as you, so always trust your instincts.
If you bring your child home early, be sure not to make him or her feel like a failure. Instead, acknowledge your child’s good attempt and say that there may be future camp opportunities. For these kids, day camp might be an appropriate stepping-stone until they’re more ready for sleepaway camp.
Homesickness can be tough to deal with, but once those early days are past, your child may find there’s a world of adventures to be discovered. Who knows—camp could be so much fun that your child won’t want to leave! #
Courtesy of Nemours Foundation.