To many, the words “summer camp” evoke fond memories of making new friendships, eating gooey s’mores, and joining campfire singalongs. But, for some, the concept of a sleepaway summer camp can mean an anxiety-inducing adjustment. This can be daunting to first-time campers — and their caregivers.
What’s important to remember is that these feelings are completely normal. Each year, an estimated 14 million children and adults attend summer camp, according to the American Camp Association, and each first-timer will react differently to being away from home. There are several factors involved — age, background, personal disposition, etc. — but it’s important to prepare your child for separation to ensure a smooth transition that will help with making the most of the experience.
Easing your child into being away from home should be a process. Begin by talking about homesickness and expressing how common it is. Once your child understands the different emotions at play, do a “trial run” and have them spend a weekend away at a relative’s house. You can start out by checking in regularly each evening and transition to less-frequent interaction. Before long, your child will have some experience being away from home so their first night at camp isn’t so scary.
Just as each child is different, each camp will be different, with varying policies, procedures, and cultural norms. In the weeks leading up to camp, it can be helpful to visit the camp and introduce your child to at least one person who can act as a bridge. If you know of other children attending the camp, set up a playdate so your child can begin to make friends before the transition away from home. Additionally, allowing your kids to be involved in the camp enrollment process can give them an opportunity to get excited and choose their activities.
You know your child best, so convey to counselors/caregivers any specific considerations that might be appropriate (for example, medication schedules). Discuss what individualized support or considerations could be helpful to ensure your child’s success. Continuity of intervention and support is paramount to maintain a child’s sense of routine.
Giving your child pre-addressed and pre-stamped envelopes can empower them to write notes when they miss you. And sending comfort items such as a teddy bear, blanket, or pictures can also help them acclimate to being away from home.
In the weeks leading up to camp, discuss other coping skills, such as journaling, drawing, or meditation, to provide them with specific strategies they can use to express their emotions.
It’s important to be transparent with your child so they know what to expect. Have an open discussion in the weeks before camp begins and come up with a communication plan — this includes how you’ll keep in touch, as well as how frequently. Sometimes making a schedule showing when you’ll check in can be helpful.
You should also avoid making promises you can’t keep. Unless you plan on following through with it, don’t tell your child you’ll pick them up after a week if they’re still anxious or that you’ll visit when you know you can’t. Broken promises such as that only exacerbate separation anxiety and create more trouble down the road.
Most importantly, express your confidence in your child, telling them how brave and resilient they are and how you admire their strength. Listen to them express their feelings and acknowledge how you also miss them.
Parents’ “kidsickness” is common, especially if this is also your first time away from your child for an extended period of time. Resist the urge to check in too frequently, as it can be harmful in the long run. Reminding children that you’re thinking of them can be comforting and affirming enough.
Encourage your child to get involved in activities and make new friends. If needed, direct them to the appropriate support staff (nurses, counselors, care staff, etc.) if they need to talk to someone in person.
Sleepaway camp can be a wonderful experience, full of self-growth, discovery, and excitement. By easing your child into that environment, you can ensure that they have a fun-filled and memorable summer.