Top 5 Ways to Deal with Campers' Homesickness
It’s a scenario every camp parent fears. You drop off your kids for summer camp, and although you’ll miss them, you also hope they’ll make friends, play games, and have a blast. Then, only a few days later, you get this phone call: "Mom, Dad, can you come pick me up?"
Homesickness can turn summer vacation into a stressful time for both parents and kids. However, a little separation anxiety is perfectly normal, especially if this is your child’s first time living away from home. According to one study recorded by the American Camp Association, 83% of campers reported feeling homesick at least once while at camp. Furthermore, the feeling of being "homesick" stems from children’s basic need to feel secure, protected, and accepted, not necessarily from a desire to stay home.
As a parent, you can alleviate your child’s stress by preparing him for overnight camp before the summer even begins. No matter how independent your son or daughter seems, practice the following five methods to make camp feel like a home-away-from-home.
1. Take small steps to build up your child’s independence.
Over the course of the school year, organize several day trips, overnight field trips, and sleepovers with friends in order to grow your child’s confidence gradually. By spending one or two nights away from Mom and Dad, kids learn that they have nothing to fear, which will prepare them for a longer vacation.
Demonstrate some of the positive aspects of independence. For example, instead of saying, “You’ll have to do laundry and get ready for bed on your own now,” say, “You can choose your own activities and make your own decisions about what to eat, wear, and buy.” Let your children know you’ll miss them, but emphasize the fun they’ll have as well.
2. Help your child know what to expect at camp.
If possible, involve your kids in the process of choosing which camp they’ll attend. If they feel like it was their decision to go to camp, they’ll have a greater sense of control and less anxiety.
Research details about the camp, including the daily schedule, list of activities, and a map of the campus. Explain to your kids as much as possible about what they’ll do, where they’ll sleep, and what their day will be like. If you live nearby, you could even drive out to the camp with your kids before camp begins. Familiarity and routine are the best ways to dispel homesickness.
Describe the fun parts of camp. If you’re excited, your kids will get excited as well. If they have any friends or neighbors who have attended camp, your kids can ask them what it was like.
3. Develop a communication plan.
Set firm guidelines ahead of time about how and how often you and your kids will communicate. Will you send each other weekly letters or an email on the weekends? Will you visit on Parent Day? A steady routine will reassure your child and establish a sense of comfort and security.
Make sure to check the camp’s policies before promising your child anything. In addition, ask the camp counselor what she recommends. A daily phone call might seem like a good idea, but it can actually make your child feel more homesick if it distracts her from life at camp.
If your kid does make a “rescue call,” resist the urge to pick him up early. A conversation with the staff will help you determine if he’s sick with anxiety or if he simply needs a distraction. If your child does seem homesick, offer him reassurance and divert his attention to what he’s been doing at camp.
4. Introduce your child to the camp community ahead of time.
If a neighbor, friend, or classmate is going to the same camp, set up a play date or sleepover so that your child knows she won’t be alone. Arrange meetings with the camp director, teachers, staff members, and your child’s future counselor and cabin mates. Having a support system already in place helps kids feel secure, and making friends ahead of time helps them feel accepted, loved, and comfortable in the new environment.
If you’re unable to meet with camp members or your family lives far away, set up a phone call, Skype meeting, or supervised online chat on the camp’s website. Even teaching your kids the names of the camp director and counselors will make camp feel more familiar when they finally arrive.
5. Pack a familiar item to remind them of home.
When parents can’t be with their child every single day, something as simple as a family photo or memento can reassure kids that home is just a phone call away. Send something small they can fit in their pockets, such as a favorite toy, locket, or picture. That way, they can access a reminder of home wherever they are. A pillow, blanket, or pair of slippers will create the impression that they’re sleeping in their own beds. Make sure that the item isn't valuable or irreplaceable in case it gets lost.
Pack a box of positive notes that they can open each day, or consider sending one or two surprise care packages with snacks, toys, photos, letters, and cards. Include objects they can use at camp, such as a beach ball or disposable camera, in order to focus their attention on summer camp and not on home.
Homesickness can ruin any kid's summer camp experience, but it doesn't have to. With a little forethought and preparation on your part, you can ensure that your children feel comfortable in their new environment, and they may even miss camp more than they ever missed home!