By Christa Melnyk Hines
Worried that your child will suffer a serious hankering for home during his or her first camp experience this summer? While homesickness isn’t unusual, a proactive approach now can minimize the blues later.
Work up to it. When her children were younger, Stephanie Maass says sleepovers with friends helped her sons, Spencer, 18, Hunter, 15, and Carter, 11, adjust to eventual week-long camps.
Talk to your child. Include your child in the process of choosing a camp and discuss whether or not she is ready to go. And remember, every child is different. Adrienne Andrews has two daughters Janelle, 13, and Cameron, 9. While Janelle felt ready to attend week long Girl Scout camps at 7, Cameron didn’t feel ready until last summer.
Practice coping skills. “Make them feel like they can still be connected with [you],” says Amy Gragg, a licensed clinical social worker.
If a phone is available, agree on a specific time each day to talk. Or pack pens, paper, envelopes, and stamps so they can send you letters. Positive, self-calming statements can also help. For example, “I am safe. I can handle this.”
“This gives control back to the child when they’re able to calm themselves and change their thought patterns,” Gragg says.
Do your homework. Find out the camp’s caregiver-to-child ratio in each cabin, the staff’s experience and qualifications, and if a nurse or physician is on staff. Also, ask about the camp’s policy on homesickness, including how they train staff to handle it. “If they don’t have [a policy] in place with how they support your child, I wouldn’t send them,” Gragg says.
Find familiar faces. Find out if other children from your child’s school or your neighborhood plan to attend the same camp. A few friendly faces can go a long way to help a child transition from the home to camp setting. When Andrews’ daughter Cameron attended a camp in Wisconsin last summer, her older sister Janelle went, too. With Janelle there, Cameron adjusted easily to a 10-day camp far away from home.
Pack a connection to home. Typically, morning and bedtime are the most difficult times of the day for children at camp – times when they normally enjoy a routine and are more likely to connect with a parent or another caretaker. In addition to stationery, pack your child’s favorite stuffed animal or toy. Even something that smells like a parent or home can provide comfort as they drift off to sleep. For her sons, Maass says she always packs a flashlight, a cell phone (if allowed), a couple of books and a hand-held video game.
Remain calm. If your child calls feeling homesick, calmly remind him about the coping skills you discussed before camp and ask him if he talked to his counselor. “The more reassuring and calm [you] can be, the more helpful that’s going to be for [your] child. At this age, they’re listening to our words and tone of voice more,” Gragg says.
Above all, try to avoid going to get him.
When to bring ‘em home. If your child is homesick to the point of not eating, sleeping or participating in camp activities, talk to a camp counselor. You may decide it is in his best interest to bring him home. But, focus on the positive. Praise your child for going in the first place: “I’m proud of you for going because that was an accomplishment.”
While homesickness is difficult, Maass says she is happy her sons did not miss out on the camp experience. “Camping helps them learn camaraderie. It builds their self-confidence,” she says.
Andrews agrees. “It provides an opportunity for them to grow and learn how to be independent without mom or dad hovering,” she says. “They both came home feeling very good about themselves. They made new friends; they tried new things and felt good about being on their own.”
Freelance journalist Christa Melnyk Hines and her husband have two children. She is the author of Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.