The sun is shining. The birds are singing. School is almost over and kids are packing their things and getting ready to head off to sleep-away camp. This can be a very exciting time for both returning campers and for those going away for the first time.
For returning campers, there have probably been lots of conversations about bunk assignments, counselors and activities. For new campers, there may have been local meet-and-greets and discussions with parents about their own experiences with summer camp.
Once they are there, many kids and teens do great at sleep-away camp. It’s a chance to be away from school and home, develop and strengthen artistic, athletic and social skills, and also flex those independent muscles.
But camp can also lead to anxiety, for both kids and adults. A lot of this anxiety is very normal, with many kids experiencing some amount of anticipatory anxiety or anxiety as the transition from home to camp occurs. Other kids may experience more persist anxiety, so it’s really helpful for parents to know how to plan ahead and address these issues head-on.
First of all, as you start talking about camp, it’s helpful to open the dialogue up for kids to tell you how they are feeling and what they might be nervous about. You might think they are worried about bedtime, when in fact they are wondering who will be doing their laundry. A few conversations about what they think it will be like and if they have questions may do the trick for a lot of kids. Don’t forget to ask these questions of returning campers as well as newbies. Even returning campers may have questions about things.
If you can, have a sense of what the routine is for weekday and weekend schedules. It will help you have conversations with your child about what to expect. As you talk with her, listen for times where your child may feel more vulnerable or anxious. Not shockingly, quiet hour and bedtime can be times where kids, even older ones, can feel a little homesick or sad. Cope ahead by eliciting their ideas of how to keep busy during that time, what to do if they really feel very upset, and who to go to for support.
For kids who have a history of anxiety, or when you know that homesickness or worries may be an issue, here are a few tips:
First of all, monitor your own reactions and how you model coping. Validate the concerns your child has then offer support and suggestions. For example, “It sounds like you are worried about how it’s going to go at night. Let’s talk about that.” This will be much more effective than saying, “Don’t worry, you are going to have so much fun you won’t even have time to miss us.”
You might think that avoiding talking about worries is better than discussing strategies ahead of time, but I’ve found that the idea of coping ahead is really useful. For example, in my practice I’ve worked with kids in the spring before camp to talk about potential areas for worry and how to strategize. Sometimes a few sessions is enough and other times kids have my contact info in case they need support during the summer.
Regarding phone calls and visiting day. Many sleep-away camps limit phone calls for good reason. My general feeling is that 1-2 brief calls are OK, but the tone of the call should be just for checking in and talking about camp. This should not be a time to discuss things like coming home or how terrible the food is. Parent should direct the conversation so they can hear about activities and high points.
For visiting day, the same strategies apply. Many kids are very excited to share and show off and parents should delight in that visit. If kids mention missing home or feeling sad, again, it’s good to acknowledge feelings and redirect the child. Goodbyes may be tearful, but don’t linger when separating as it only makes things harder.
A final word – you have chosen the sleep-away camp for a reason, and camps choose counselors because they love kids and are warm and supportive. Rest assured that your kids are in good hands and talk to head counselors or directors ahead of time if you have concerns about your child’s anxiety. They will be good allies and will want to help.
Have a great summer.
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Rachel Busman, PsyD, of the Child Mind Institute, is a clinical psychologist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of anxiety and mood disorders in children and adolescents. Dr. Busman earned her doctoral degree from the University of Hartford’s Graduate Institute of Professional Psychology. She completed both her pre-doctoral internship and post doctoral fellowship at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut, specializing in the treatment of children and adolescents. Dr. Busman has been featured as a clinical expert on NBC’s TODAY Show, MSNBC and CNN and is a contributor for Parents.com. For kids with impairing anxiety, the Child Mind Institute offers summer programs designed to address fears and worries. For more information click here.
The views and opinions expressed on this blog are purely the blog contributor’s. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. Writers may have conflicts of interest, and their opinions are their own.