When Peg Smith went to sleepaway camp for the first time when she was about 10 years old, she was wracked with separation anxiety. Smith missed home so much that she was almost physically ill, and had to leave. When her friends came back full of stories about their fun adventures, Smith immediately regretted bailing on the experience and felt like she had missed out on something really special.
So the following summer, she went back. She got homesick again, but fought through it. Smith, who is now the CEO for the American Camp Association, is glad she did.
“Homesickness is natural,” Smith said. “But it’s not fatal.”
About 10 percent of children will experience separation anxiety at sleepaway camp, Smith said. For about 6 percent of kids, the anxiety will be severe enough that camp staff will have to call their parents. It’s normal for kids to be afraid of the unknown and to miss home, Smith said. But if they can stick it out, they will not only have that camp experience, they will learn how to be more independent and work through problems.
“Staffs are trained around homesickness, how to spot it and keep kids busy and engage them and make sure they’re informed about what’s going to happen,” Smith said, noting that sometimes a child’s anxiety stems from not knowing what to expect. Counselors are trained to notice when a child seems sad or quiet, and reach out to him, acknowledge the feelings and then distract him, Smith said.
“Once the child gets distracted and busy, most of the time they are feeling okay,” Smith said. “That doesn’t mean they won’t feel the homesickness again, but they learn how to take care of it or at least realize that they’re not going to feel this way for very long.”
So if, in addition to the standard pre-camp lectures about changing underwear daily, eating at least some vegetables and wearing sunscreen, you find yourself talking about the homesick blues, don’t despair. It’s normal and, most of the time, surmountable. Here are suggestions on how to prevent or beat back separation anxiety when your child heads off to camp this summer.
- Let the child help choose the camp. The most successful camp experiences are the ones where the child and parent select the camp together, Smith said. If he feels as if he’s had some input and control in the decision, he’s more likely to want to stick it out.
- Practice sleeping away. Have your child sleep over at the home of a friend or relative so that camp is not her first night away from home, Smith said.
- Emphasize the positive. Talk about what a great opportunity it will be to see and do new things, and make new friends, and tell your child you can’t wait to hear all about it, Smith said. In the course of the conversation, acknowledge that new things can be difficult at first, but that she’s good at learning new things. If she expresses concern about getting homesick, tell her the counselors are there to help.
- Take something from home. Have your child pack a favorite stuffed animal or book, or a family picture that she can hold or look at if she gets lonely for home.
- Keep the lid on your own anxiety. It’s fine to feel nervous or sad about your child going away to camp, Smith said, but don’t talk to the child about those feelings. Discuss them with your spouse or a friend, instead, so your child isn’t burdened with worrying about you being lonely while he is away.
- Don’t plant seeds of doubt. Never, never tell your child that if she gets sad or upset or homesick he can call you and you will come get him, Smith said. That sends the subliminal message that you don’t expect him to have a good time. Instead, talk to the camp counselor or director about what they will do if your child is homesick.
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