Spending those first weeks away from home — sleeping in bunk beds and bonding over catchy camp songs — is a rite of passage for kids. At sleepaway camp, kids build self-confidence and independence, not to mention friendships that can last a lifetime. But how do you know if your child is ready for their first overnight camp experience?
According to the American Camp Association, a good rule of thumb is that a child is usually ready for overnight camp when he or she can spend one night away from home with a friend. The average age for a first trip to sleepaway camp is between 7 and 9 years old, but some kids may be ready sooner — or later — than that.
“Sleepaway camp is so child-specific,” says Maria Zimmitti, director of Georgetown Psychology Associates. “Some kids really want to go, other kids are more anxious about it.”
Child psychologists note that it’s normal for most kids to feel some anxiety, so that alone shouldn’t deter parents from sending their kid to camp.
If kids are especially nervous, “it’s important for parents to try to understand where the fears are coming from,” says Courtney Ferenz, a clinical psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Group in Fairfax. “Don’t force them, but I would say encourage them.”
Experts recommend starting small, say with a one- or two-week camp. Some camps even offer shorter chunks of time, such as half a week.
Zimmitti recommends working up to the week away by sending your child to stay with an aunt and uncle for a couple days, or with their grandparents. For especially reluctant kids, it may be helpful to send them to camp with a friend the first time, Ferenz adds.
The American Camp Association recommends involving children in preparations for camp — so they feel like they “own” the decision to go — and packing personal items from home, like a favorite stuffed animal.
One thing to avoid is pulling your child out of camp early, unless there’s a true emergency. “When you rescue a child from a situation, rather than helping them through it, you reinforce the avoidance,” Ferenz says. “Then the anxiety gets worse.”
Instead, try to have a phone conversation with your child to talk about why they want to come home, and enlist the camp counselors to help, too.
The first couple of days may be rough, Zimmitti says, but once they settle in and become comfortable, most kids can’t wait to go back the next year.