Separation anxiety and homesickness can overshadow the joys of a child's summer camp experience, but support from camp counselors and parents can help children cope. To help an anxious or homesick child, parents must be sympathetic and at the same time set limits. In the long run, working through these feelings can better equip children to handle future separations and adjustments to new situations.
Why does my child become anxious about going to camp?
Anxiety is a normal feeling for children about to leave for camp, whether it's their first time or they are summer camp veterans. This uneasiness or apprehension can occur for many reasons. For the majority of children, it is a mingling of excitement and a little fear of the unknown. Usually these children are easily reassured and make it off to camp with minimal upset.
For other children, the "fear factor" is larger than the excitement, and tends to take on a life of its own. In this situation, the child could be questioning everything about the upcoming separation experience: "What if I get sick?" "What if no one likes me?" "What if the counselors are mean?" "What if something happens to you (Mom and Dad) while I'm gone?"
What does it feel like?
Some children experience physical symptoms of anxiety, including butterflies, cold or clammy hands, headaches, nausea, being hot or cold, or feeling faint. Others report feeling like they want to cry and hide. The thoughts that accompany anxiety tend to center around what can go wrong, which leads the child to worry more and potentially feel more physical symptoms.
Why children get homesick
Homesickness is often caused by anxiety over separation from parents. Although the problem is most common among first-time campers, especially those attending sleep-away camps, even experienced campers can be affected.
Before camp starts:
- Allow your child to express his or her concerns, and answer the "What if" questions in a calm, coping-focused manner: "You've made friends at school, I'm sure the camp will help you meet new friends once you're there." "The counselors are chosen because of their good work with kids." "The camp people work with hundreds of kids each year. They know exactly what to do and how to get in touch with us if you need us."
- Help your child prepare by encouraging him or her to learn about the camp and its activities.
- Focus your child on looking forward to the camp activities he or she is most excited about, such as swimming, baseball, or crafts. Engage him or her in fun aspects of preparing such as shopping for new clothes and picking out camp gear.
- Attend any sessions with your child offered by the camp in your local area.
- Make appropriate communication easy on your child. Pack pre-addressed, stamped envelopes for your child to mail letters to you and others, such as grandparents and friends. Find out the camp's policies on phone calls, e-mail, and other forms of electronic communication.
- Help your child rehearse. Children can practice being away from home by sleeping over at the homes of friends and relatives.
What should parents avoid doing?
- Avoid giving excessive reassurance, such as repeatedly saying, "You'll be fine!" Too much reassurance causes anxious children to seek to discredit the parent's opinion.
- Avoid telling your child exactly what to do. It is more useful to ask your child to come up with a realistic plan for how to meet new friends and find fun activities. Successful completion of the plan enhances the child's feeling of control and accomplishment, and this will decrease anxiety.
- Don't ignore the problem by hoping it will go away by itself.
- Don't be impatient ("You're going and that's it!").
- Don't allow the child to avoid the situation ("Okay, you don't have to go.").
Once your child is at camp:
- Keep connections to home
A child can be reassured through letters, or "care" packages of books, treats and other tokens of affection from home. A teddy bear, toy or other special item from home can be of particular comfort to a younger child. It is not advisable to send a beloved toy since the child could be upset if it is lost or broken. Some camps have the capability to stay connected via e-mail. Parents should be careful about having these virtual "calls" and "visits" interfere with adjustment.
- Make the separation gradual
Slowly getting the child used to being away is generally helpful for homesickness. If possible, parents should telephone the child daily at the same time for a few days, gradually reducing the frequency and length of calls. During the call, parents can acknowledge their child's fears, but also reinforce their pride in the child's being in camp and his or her achievement in activities. Set an expectation that phone calls will be focused on the ways your child is trying to cope and have fun at camp, and not focused on crying and begging to come home. In addition to regularly scheduled phone contact, calls could be earned by displaying positive coping skills as opposed to behavioral distress. Parents should also keep in mind that one or two dramatic letters or calls indicating homesickness may be an exaggeration and a natural part of the adjustment. Being patient is often the solution. The child who hated camp the first week may be the same child who begs to go back next summer.
- Monitor your own separation difficulties
Parents should be sensitive to their own anxiety about the separation. Children easily can pick up a parent's worry and feel unsure about going off on their own.
- Enlist the help of siblings
If older siblings are attending the same camp, parents can make arrangements for visual contact and a few minutes for the children to talk each day. This helps reassure the homesick child but does not cast the older child as a caretaker—a situation that can cause resentment.
- Work with camp staff
Let the counselors know prior to the beginning of camp that your child is anxious about being away from home and may become homesick. Camp counselors can play an important role, easing the adjustment process by preventing teasing and encouraging a child to participate in activities. If a child is having extreme difficulty, parents should be sure there is no objective reason for the child's unhappiness such as scapegoating by other children or counselors, or a bad experience with an activity.
- Take the child home
In some circumstances the camp and the camper are a bad fit and the child needs to return home. Structuring the remaining time at home is key to keeping the child productive and minimizing any blows to his self-esteem. Rather than portray the situation as a defeat, it can be discussed as a challenging experience that was worth exploring. Talking specifically about what worked or did not work can be beneficial for helping the child handle future camp-like experiences. Parents should also be sensitive to any emerging anxiety issues that may warrant further evaluation.