“Children want to be independent, and they realize that they cannot be truly independent until they beat homesickness, even when they have a painful case of it.” -Michael Thompson, PhD., Homesick and Happy
Do you have a reluctant camper or one who’s not sure if camp is right for him or her?
I talk to a lot of parents before they send their children to camp, and many have campers who are anxious about going to camp. In some cases, they’ve had a negative experience at a one-week school science camp and don’t think they can “make it for two weeks” and are worried about being homesick. In other cases, the kid is a “home body” who prefers being online to playing outdoors.
When talking to parents who are unsure if they should send their child to camp, I share my opinion that for very young kids (ages 6-8), it’s best to wait on camp if they are not enthusiastic about going. Many of our younger campers are siblings of older kids who have attended camp. They have heard about camp for years and can’t wait to participate. Those young kids who are excited to come to camp do fine and rarely struggle with homesickness.
But if your child is nine or ten and is still saying they’re “not ready” or “don’t want to go,” you as a parent need to decide what’s best for your child. After spending close to three decades working at camp, I’ve learned that the same kid who is anxious and hesitant about going to camp when he’s nine or ten will most likely still be anxious when he’s thirteen. As a parent, you need to decide how to approach your child’s anxiety, as well as your own. You can avoid it, not send them to camp, and hope they develop independence in other ways, which is definitely possible. Or, you can bite the bullet, give them these positive messages, and send them off to camp with a smile, knowing that it may be hard for them, but they will grow from the experience.
In Michael Thompson, PhD.’s book Homesick and Happy, he says “It is the very challenge of camp that makes it such a life-changing experience for so many children.”
According to Thompson, “Homesickness is not a psychiatric illness. It is not a disorder. It is the natural, inevitable consequence of leaving home. Every child is going to feel it, more or less, sooner or later. Every adult has had to face it and overcome it at some point in life … If you cannot master it, you cannot leave home.”
I know there are many parents and children who just can’t stomach the idea of going through some painful time apart. You need not read further if you are not sending your reluctant child to camp. This article is for those of you who have decided that your child is going to camp regardless of their reluctance, and also for parents whose previously excited camper is now having last-minute camp anxiety.
Pick and choose the messages that you believe will resonate with your child, and, of course, use your own words. Acknowledge your child’s feelings and empathize while expressing confidence in your child and in the camp experience. Share your own stories!
1. You are confident in them.
“I am so excited that you get to go to camp this year. You are ready for this adventure, and I know it will be so much fun.”
2. Missing home is okay.
“You may feel homesick, and that’s okay. A lot of kids feel that way. That just means that you love us and you love home. I feel homesick when I’m on trips, too. Missing home is part of life. But I konw you can still have fun at camp, even if you feel sad sometimes.”
3. Reassure them that there are people at camp who will take care of their needs.
“There are adults at camp (counselors, directors) who are there to take care of you and help you with anything you need. They can help with things you normally come to me about. Let them know if you are feeling sad, and they can help you. They have lots of experience working with kids who are away from home for the first time.”
4. Encourage them to see the bigger picture.
“It may seem like a long way off, but in a few years, you’ll be ready for college. I want you to feel confident in your ability to live away from me, so that you can choose any school you like, even if it’s far away from home. Think of camp like your practice time for when you’re older and ready to move away for school or a job. You’ll get better at being independent by starting now, when you’re young, with short spurts of time away. Some kids aren’t doing well when they start college because they don’t have any experience being away from home. I want you to feel great when you go to college, because you’ll know that you’ve already been successful with short camp stays.”
5. Share the reality that good things in life come with some pain and failure.
“Many good things in life aren’t easy at first. Learning a new sport or trying something new is really hard. Sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone to discover something you really love. If you never go through anything hard, you’re going to miss out on some great experiences. The first few days of camp may be hard, and that’s okay. I know you’ll work through it and figure out what makes you feel better. I have confidence in you, and I am so proud of you for going to camp and trying this new adventure!”
6. Make sure they know you want to hear about everything.
“Every day comes with its good and bad parts. When you’re at camp, I want you to write me letters and tell me all of the stuff that you’re doing and feeling. If you feel homesick at rest time, tell me about it, and also tell me what you did to help yourself. Did you talk to your counselor? Keep yourself busy playing cards with friends? Write me a letter? I also want you to share good stuff. Did you get your favorite food for lunch? Try rock climbing? Get up on a wakeboard? I want to hear both the good and bad things about camp in your letters.”
7. You are not going to pick him up early.
“Even if you’re a little homesick for the whole time you’re at camp, you’re going to feel so much better about the experience if you stick it out and make the best of it. Most kids feel better after a few days of getting settled in and adjusted, and I know you’ll feel great once you let yourself relax and just start enjoying all the fun things at camp. I’m not going to pick you up early, no matter what, because I know you will feel really proud of yourself for making it through camp, even if you have some hard days.”
Another great way to encourage your child to be more enthusiastic about camp, besides sharing these messages, is to connect them with someone who’s been to camp and has had a positive experience. Hearing from a trusted friend how much fun camp is can help a child overcome their anxieties.
Audrey “Sunshine” Monke is the Owner/Director of Gold Arrow Camp. You can read more posts on her blog, Sunshine Parenting.