Help Your Kids Beat Summer Camp Homesickness

Leaving home, even for a short while, can create a lot of anxiety for kids — not to mention their parents. But you can reduce your child’s fears by sending her off with two essential items: a sense of independence and a vote of confidence.

“Kids need opportunities to take care of themselves, and parents have gotten a lot worse at that over the years,” says Bob Ditter, a child and family therapist in Boston, Mass., who consults camps nationwide. A big part of separation anxiety is wondering, “How am I going to be successful?”

To boost your child’s confidence and minimize homesickness, Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association, suggests these six steps:

1. Practice separations throughout the year.

Set up sleepovers at relatives’ and friends’ homes, and use those experiences to build confidence. When it’s time for camp or a trip with another family, remind your child that she’s spent the night away before. She’s already seen that you can go away and then come back.

2. Teach independence.

In addition to creating opportunities for independence, you need to call attention to the small steps your child takes. Tell her you liked the way she handled a conflict or how she approached the salesperson for help. She may not see those moves as accomplishments if you don’t acknowledge them.

3. Involve them in decision-making.

Giving your child choices will help her feel that she has some control over what happens to her while she’s away. Once you’ve set the parameters and made your own short list of camps, let her make the final call. Give her the ability to choose her own activities, and accept what she picks. “You have to be open-minded,” says Smith. “We are not our children, and they aren’t us. It’s part of learning how to make decisions.”

4. Minimize surprises.

Part of homesickness is being unfamiliar with your surroundings, so the more information your child has about logistics, the easier her transition will be. Explain how camp is laid out: where her cabin is located, how the bathroom is set up, how far away the dining hall is. Tell her where she’ll be sleeping in Grandma’s house, what the neighborhood is like and how close the playground is.

5. Avoid making an escape plan.

The minute you tell your child she doesn’t have to stay if she’s unhappy, you’ve prepared her to be unhappy. Instead, if your child calls you weeping and begging to come home, listen to her, but then move past the anxiety: “What did you do that was fun? Is there something you’re doing tomorrow that you’re looking forward to? If you’re still feeling this way next week, we can talk about it.”

6. Don’t wig out.

Severe homesickness is very rare, according to Smith, so the unhappiness you’re hearing probably doesn’t characterize your child’s entire experience. Keep reflecting your confidence that she’ll have a great time, and remind yourself of the goal: to help her learn new skills, build self-esteem, and gain confidence and independence


5 Responses to “Help Your Kids Beat Summer Camp Homesickness”

  1. Suzanne Hantke says:

    Hi Gail, Thank you for your article. I found the suggestion “Giving your child choices will help her feel that she has some control over what happens to her” a very important point.

    When my sisters and I were young, we went to camps… not because we wanted to… but because our Mom thought it would be good for us. Her intentions were great (2 of us were fair skinned so she worried our friends would go to the beach and we’d be left out.) However, she made one huge miscalculation – assuming we wanted to go. She took a job there just to be able to send us… but we had nothing in common with these kids.

    It was a sports-based camp, something none of would purposefully ever volunteer to participate in. I dreaded the basketball courts and the baseball fields (yes, plural… there were two of each!!) I’d stand there – willing the ball with all of my might to go wherever I WASN’T. When it did come towards me, while the other kids ran towards it (and me) at high speed, I covered my head to protect it with my arms and backed up as quickly as I could without actually turning and running in the opposite direction.

    In two months, my arm was in a sling every other week, I sprained my ankle on the ‘off’ weeks (numerous times) and had swimmers ear pretty often. I didn’t get hurt playing basketball or baseball … it was just the only way I could think of to NOT get hurt!! I spent just about every morning on the infirmary porch with a thermometer in my mouth praying for a fever!

    I did manage to enjoy a few things… ceramics, woodworking, gymnastics, and once a week they offered an hour trail ride of horseback riding off ground. But they came with restrictions; not meant to be a punishment, but because there were only offered a handful of times and we were told we had to be ‘fair’ and rotate these activities so other kids could enjoy them too. I loved music, but I couldn’t really enjoy it there because THAT was the position my Mom had taken at the camp to get us in. And because I was miserable there, having to see her every day and not be allowed to be with her was pure torture.

    One thing you talked about is choices, and that is a huge advantage over what we had years ago. Our parents had to either rely on word of mouth or just take a chance. I have no clue if there were specialty camps for dance or gymnastics or drama even available years ago. I do remember my cousin went to a camp in Brooklyn for horseback riding… but I also knew it was extremely expensive. There was no “research it on the internet” back then. But now that that resource is available, I couldn’t help but think… we had an added disadvantage at that place because we were “late-comers”. Most of those kids knew each other because they had spent every summer together since they were really young. We stood on the sidelines… we started out of the gate feeling like outsiders as we watched them greet each other with excited recognition.

    Based on that experience and coupled with the section you wrote about familiarity, since these kids live on the internet anyway; maybe camps should make the roster of campers list available to parents so the kids can go on Facebook or MySpace pages and ‘friend’ each other beforehand.

    I’d like to end this with a question that came to mind from the sentence, “If you’re still feeling this way next week, we can talk about it.” In retrospect of my experience, and to maybe help some Moms if the scenario does arise…. While I agree it is good to not give the “escape clause” (I love that, by the way) and to encourage them to ‘tough it out’ and not race out and bring them home; is there a ‘guideline’ you would suggest, just as a reference point, when you should not wait a full week? How do you make the distinction between separation anxiety you may both be feeling, which can be intense, and the “Something’s wrong” feeling… a feeling we are experts at convincing ourselves we are being silly over and to dismiss.

    To give an analogy to my question so I know I am making the crux of my question understood… When a baby cries when you put them to bed, the typical recommendation to new Moms is to “let the child cry it out for about 5 minutes before going back in the room.”

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  3. Gail Belsky says:

    Hi Suzanne,
    I’m glad you found the story to be helpful—I could have used some of the advice when my own kids were homesick at camp! You raised a great point about how to know when NOT to make your kids tough it out. The best people to ask are the real experts: the camp director and staff. They deal with homesickness all the time, and have first-hand knowledge of how your kids are doing day-to-day—not just when you get a weepy phone call. You may learn that while your kids feel sad or insecure at certain times, they’re generally doing okay. It’s hard to not want to jump in and protect them; when I left my kids crying on visiting day, I practically cried, too. But they came home in one piece, feeling more confident and independent than when they left. Even if they resented being sent in the first place.

  4. tsrichards says:

    When my children were younger, I made a couple of mistakes when sending them to an overnight camp. The first mistake was they were not accustomed to spending the night away from home. As a result of this error, my daughter experienced fear at night. My second mistake was not informing the camp director that my son still had bedwetting issues. Even though I sent extra clothes and extra bedding, he experienced embarrassment in front of his fellow campers.

    Now, my granddaughter wants to go to overnight camp. We have been watching an online video about the camp we selected in order for her to know what to expect when she arrives. I am going to make sure I save the “water works” until after the bus is headed down the road. I am trying not to mention the word “homesick” at all. I don’t want to plant that thought in her head. We will be communicating my mail, not telephone, and she will have self-addressed stamped envelopes to use when writing home.

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