By Nora Heston Tarte
Some children (and parents) are so overcome by the fear of homesickness they avoid sleep away camps just to alleviate the possibility of missing home. Learning to sleep away from home, however, is an important part of growing up—one that campers will benefit from later in life.
It’s a common misconception that homesickness is bad. “Most feelings of homesickness are not problematic,” says Evelyn Torrez-Martinez, camp director for Girl Scouts AZ. “In fact, missing home is not a problem as we all do in different times of our lives. If it becomes a preoccupation, that’s when it can be challenging.”
Dr. Christopher Thurber and colleagues studied homesickness in-depth and published findings in 2007. The research showed that 81 percent of campers recover from homesickness quickly. That being said, 19 percent of campers experience “significant distress” while away at camp, often characterized by obsessive thoughts of home. The remaining 6 percent suffer from a more consistent severe homesickness that can make sleep away camp painful.
“No matter how well-adjusted or confident or independent a young person is, there will be a period of adjustment to this new experience of summer camp,” says Kevin Nissen from Friendly Pines Camp in Prescott.
Avoiding sleep away camp is not the answer. “For many campers navigating the complex feelings of missing home at a summer camp full of peers and activities and nature’s wonder is one of their first steps in understanding themselves,” Kevin adds. “They journey on their own and make their own discoveries.”
A Parent’s Role
It isn’t always the child who is first to feel homesick. Parents often struggle with children being away from camp, too, and parental actions can dictate a child’s experience with sleep away camp.
Watch your language. It may be tempting to talk about homesickness before a child goes to camp. In most cases this isn’t a good idea. “A parent may end up creating a situation that wouldn’t otherwise exist,” Kevin explains. Bringing up homesickness can put the thought in a child’s head before leaving. Instead, talk about how much fun camp will be and avoid questions about how much your child will miss you.
If a child brings up fears of homesickness, address those feelings. “Tell your camper that some feelings of homesickness are normal and then help think of some coping skills that will ease their mind when this situation happens at camp,” Evelyn says.
Also, if you will be enjoying time to yourself while your child is away at camp, perhaps by taking your own vacation, don’t talk about it too much beforehand. Talking about your own adventures can make a child feel like they are missing out, sparking feelings of homesickness.
Don’t give kids an out. Telling your child to come home if homesickness strikes is actually a bad idea, according to Kevin. “If you want your child to work through the challenge of missing home, you should be sending positive and encouraging messages,” he says. “Remember, missing home will not be the most difficult challenge a young person will face in their long life.” In fact, overcoming homesickness gives a child skills to make them a successful adult later in life.
Prepare kids for leaving. “Preparation is the key,” Evelyn says. There are several ways to prepare kids for camp. First, involving children in choosing the camp they will attend can help ease fears. Having a say in camp selection can create excitement surrounding the event. It also instills a sense of independence in young campers who are making their own summer plans for the first time.
Girl Scouts offers open house events where campers and families can visit the camp facility before the adventure begins. During this event campers see the campgrounds, sleeping quarters and showers.
Another way to instill independence and confidence heading into camp is to help campers pack. “Have your camper pack their own bag and make the decision on what they will need to bring to feel comfortable, like their special blanket for example,” Evelyn says. “The more independent they are during this first step, the more confident they will be doing things on their own while at camp.”
Schedule sleepovers before camp. Children that spend a couple of nights away from home, or even just away from parents, may find it easier to deal with sleeping over at camp. If your child hasn’t had a sleepover before, schedule one with friends or perhaps a long weekend with family members.
Have Confidence in Camp
Camp counselors are prepared to deal with homesickness. At Girl Scout camps campers attend a first-day orientation. They also play icebreakers and connect with counselors and new friends. These connections will ease feelings of missing home throughout the week.
“Counselors can help alleviate the effects of missing home by keeping the campers busy, keeping them together as a group and helping to develop cabin unity, and by focusing on each child,” says Kevin.
Many feelings of homesickness come up during quiet times at camp such as bed times or meal times. Evelyn says that’s why campers at Girl Scouts keep a busy schedule. Having a lot to do and bonding with others can make being away from home easier.