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Chances are you've seen a bit of ambivalence and fear from your son about going away for the summer, especially if its his first overnight camp experience. Even more likely, you've probably experienced your share of anxiety. Sending your child away for the summer isn't easy on lots of levels and we don't take our responsibility lightly. With that in mind, we wanted to address preparing for camp from the emotional side of things, both for our campers and our parents.
First and foremost, we hope you realize that homesickness happens. If your child is nervous or anxious about going to camp for the summer, know that this is completely normal. This isn't just a 1st year camper issue. Often times, returning campers who have spent previous summers at camp will experience anxieties, even if they had tremendous camp experienced and even if they never were nervous about going away before.
So how do you handle it? First, reassure them that being nervous and having some emotions about going away is completely normal. Let them know that there are lots of other kids going away for the first summer and they're feeling the same thing too. Let them know that there are awesome counselors whose job it is to help them have a great time and are there to talk to if they are having any problems during the summer. For those returning campers who are nervous, let them talk to you about the great things that they did the previous summer, and if they were homesick, ask them how they got through it.
Beyond that, don't dwell! Having a long drawn out conversation about it isn't productive, nor is talking about it over and over again. Let them know that you're confident that they are going to have a great summer and you have total faith that if they have any challenges, that they're strong enough to get through it.
When talking about the summer ahead, you may actually want to avoid using the word "Homesick". This doesn't mean that you shouldn't discuss homesickness, but its better to focus on what they may actually feel. They may miss their parents and their family pet. Maybe they're nervous that they may not make friends. They might be concerned about the unknown. Homesickness tends to be a catchall term for a variety of different emotions, so focus on the emotions, not the homesick term. We've even seen kids who will use the homesick word as an attention seeking tool and its clear that they aren't homesick.
Perhaps the most important thing we can tell you... DON'T MAKE THE PROMISE! This is something that happens and is extremely detrimental to your child's camp experience. What is the promise? It's one simple line; "If you're not having a good time,we'll come and pick you up." It may seem totally innocent and you may feel that this is all that your child needs to get on the bus. It may be something you say to placate your child when he's stressing about going to camp. In reality, however, the promise will often be something that impedes a camper's adjustment to camp. If they are nervous about going to camp, dealing with homesickness or are dealing with the adjustment and they think that mom and dad going to come pick them up, they have little incentive to overcome the challenges and enjoy themselves.
So what happens when you make the promise and your child calls you on it? It has happened where a homesick camper demands to call home because his mom said she was going to come and pick him up. You'll then be faced with two choices. One is going back on your promise and not picking him up. You've then undermined the trust between you and your child. Option two is actually coming and picking him up, thereby robbing him of a tremendously valuable experience. While no one wishes homesickness on their child, but once a camper overcomes homesickness, he gains added confidence and self reliance.
We hope that has provided some guidance on how to deal with your son's emotions. The next question is how to deal with your own anxieties and nerves about sending your child away from the summer. Like with your kids, you being nervous is completely normal. If you ask most veteran camp parents they will tell you that sending their child away wasn't easy. They may tell you that putting them on the bus and the ride home afterwards without them was emotional. What you should do is practice what you're going to preach to your kids.
All that we really can ask you is to not burden your child with your emotions. It's okay to be nervous but letting your child know isn't helpful. It may seem like telling an anxious child that you are anxious too is a good, empathetic tool, but in reality, telling your child this will just compound his nerves about going away to camp. If a child knows that his mom or dad is more anxious because of him it adds to their stress level.
It may seem like telling your child over and over again how much you're going to miss them or how sad the family pet is going to be without them is showing them how valuable they are. Ultimately, it will provide an additional emotional burden that will make the camp transition more challenging if they're worried about how sad mom, dad or the dog is all because of them.
You are giving your child a significant gift this summer. Time away, on their own, developing relationships with peers and young adults will give them incredible tools for social success. The achievements that they make in new activities and the ways that they push themselves will help their self confidence and give them tremendous personal growth. Allow them to take full advantage of this opportunity.
- Recommended Reading: The book Homesick and Happy by nationally renowned child Psychologist Michael Thompson