Summer camp experiences can help children become self-confident and self-reliant.
Julie Kaminski remembers the language from her desperate letters to her parents: “I love you. I want to come home now!” She recalls penning a dramatic plea to be rescued from residential summer camp more than 40 years ago. Today, Kaminski is preparing for her daughter's first camp experience away from home this summer.
“Looking back, I can see how going away to camp helped me become more self-sufficient, self confident, self-reliant and taught me how to get along with so many different kinds of people,” said Kaminski, a Cabin John, Md. mother of two children. "Of course I didn't think that at the time. I was extremely homesick even though it was my idea to go to sleep away camp in the first place."
A child’s first residential summer camp experience can be fraught with emotions that run the gamut from excitement to terror. While glee at the thought of a summer filled with sports, swimming, crafts and new-found friendships can be the dominant feeling, the thought of an extended period of time away from home can cause sadness and anxiety for both parents and their children.
An American Camp Association study showed that 96 percent of children who attend sleep away camps experience homesickness at some point during their stay. While these emotions are normal, parents can help children tame the pre-camp jitters. The life-long lessons gained from such camps make it worth the effort.
“Becoming comfortable with your child being away at summer camp, perhaps the first extended separation you have had, is a matter of trust,” said David Kaplan, Ph.D. of the American Counseling Association in Alexandria, Va.
“Trusting your child that they can handle themselves without your supervision. Trusting that they can handle relationships with other children. Trusting that they can get up in the morning, take a shower, wash their clothes, and change their sheets without your prodding.”
ACKNOWLEDGING THAT HOMESICKNESS is normal and many campers experience it, can help children accept and cope with their emotions.
“Expecting to miss home and feel somewhat anxious helps children feel less surprised and overwhelmed when it occurs,” said Barbara Meehan, Ph.D. executive director, Counseling and Psychological Services, George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
A child’s apprehension can be eased when parents share their own camp experiences, particularly positive memories.
“Don't let your child get caught up in your own anxiety about leaving for camp,” said Linda McKenna Gulyn, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Marymount University in Arlington, Va. “Kids sometimes worry about the parents they left behind. Be positive, but not sad that your child is leaving.”
Meehan says that developing a few self-soothing activities like playing outdoors or reading is one strategy for helping children deal with feelings of missing home. Identifying people with whom young campers can share their emotions is another means for dealing with homesickness.
“Talking to a camp counselor and even peers can help ease the difficult feelings and often they will learn they are not alone,” said Meehan.
Encouraging a child to make friends and become involved in camp activities will put the focus on the positive aspects of camp. Packing letters and stamped envelopes and developing a plan for letter exchange can help a child feel connected to their families.
“Isolating and avoiding what feels hard can often worsen anxiety and homesickness,” said Meehan. “Remind your child they are stronger than they feel in the moment and that engaging in camp activities can be helpful.”
There are times however when a child might not be ready for residential camps. The American Camp Association reports that while most cases of homesickness subside, there are cases — if a child is not eating or sleeping, for example — when it could be time to seek help. “Consult with camp professionals about resources if your child’s anxiety worsens or persists,” said Meehan.