Sending children off to summer camp can be exciting, but it can sometimes be emotionally tough on both parents and kids, especially when the kids are experiencing anxiety. Summer camp shouldn’t be a scary thing for you or your child. When children go to summer camp, they experience some of the greatest maturation of their lives, and often return home stronger, healthier and more independent.
Natalie Lane, coordinator, outdoor girl experience and Camp Ledgewood director at Girl Scouts of North East Ohio, and Liz Stevens, co-director of Camp Walden in Cheboygan, Mich., provided tips on how to help prepare anxious kids to go away to overnight camp.
The first step in dealing with the anxiety of going away starts with communication.
“Talk openly with the child about where the anxiety stems from,” Stevens suggested. “Is it a general fear of being away from home? Is she worried about bedtimes? Is he concerned about not liking the food? About making new friends? About a lack of privacy? Zeroing in on specific anxieties will help parents to address those specifically.”
Talking about the causes can be helpful, as can planning for how to handle feelings that may arise once at camp
“Definitely discuss how a child will handle feelings of homesickness, sadness or anxiety while away at camp,” Stevens said. “Most campers experience homesickness. It’s the norm, not the exception. Campers should know which coping mechanisms work for them and should have practiced them at home.”
Examples of coping techniques she gives include writing a letter to mom or dad, bringing a favorite stuffed animal or family pictures to camp, or having a calendar of the time that they will be away. Parents should talk openly to their child about all of these options prior to the start of camp. Stevens also recommended helpful resources on the internet, such as the Prep4Camp program, or books such as Notes from the Camp Bunk, a fun and helpful read for first-time campers.
Getting your camper involved in preparations for camp in a fun way can also help with pre-camp feelings of anxiety.
“Go over the camp guide with your camper and pick out the camp sessions together,” Lane said. “This helps get campers excited about camp, and they get to take charge in making decisions.”
She also suggested that parents and campers take a look at the packing list together, and that parents have their camper take the lead on packing and shopping.
“Your camper will know what they have and where it’s packed,” she said. “They’ll feel a sense of agency about their belongings, and this also helps reduce lost items!”
Lane talked about the fact that many campers haven’t had a chance to stay away from home in the past couple of years and independence from home is a skill that can be practiced before coming to camp.
“If you have the chance, go camping or hiking outside in a setting that’s similar to camp as a family,” she said. “This helps your camper learn some of the outdoor skills they’ll use at camp in a comfortable environment with you.”
Lane also suggested setting up sleepovers with friends or family member so your camper has the experience of staying away from home.
“By taking small steps before coming to resident camp, your camper will gain confidence in their ability to handle camp environments on their own,” she said.
Also, Lane advised, visit the camp if possible before the camp session. You can attend a camp’s open house to meet the camp director and see the accommodations. Knowing basic things like what the bathrooms look like and where they’re located, what pool changing rooms look like, what the dining hall procedures are, and more about day-to-day life at camp can help assuage a camper’s anxieties about attending camp for the first time.
Stevens wants parents to remember that, “as directors, it’s our job to prepare counselors for the inevitable homesickness that their campers will experience … at the most general level, counselors can help homesick campers by simply being a patient, empathetic listener. Staff might share their own experiences with homesickness to normalize it, devise a plan for coping strategies, and offer to check in with the camper later in the day. The one thing we don’t want to do is to dwell on the homesickness! Getting a camper busy and helping them make new friends is the best remedy. Camps have social workers who help cabin staff support children who are homesick.”
Perhaps the best overall tips for parents are to remember to convey to kids that overnight camp is going to be a fun adventure, and to help keep them focused on the positive (while acknowledging their anxieties and concerns). Also, “avoid scheduling family trips or events while your camper is away,” Lane said. “This helps prevent your camper from feeling like they’re missing out on an activity with their family.”
“Campers absorb the emotions of their caregivers, so make sure to tell them things like, ‘I’m so excited to hear all your stories when you come back from camp,’” rather than telling them how much you, other family members or pets will miss them,” Lane added.
Lisa Matkowsky is a freelance writer.