Your child has been anticipating for months: two magical weeks of swimming in a pristine lake, toasting marshmallows around a roaring bonfire and making friends to last a lifetime. Then homesickness sets in, fierce as a grizzly on a sugar high.
Fortunately, there's lots that parents and kids can do to minimize this sinking feeling so it doesn't get in the way of that blue-sky, fresh-air camp experience.
Homesickness is Normal
Over 95% of kids experience homesickness at camp, says Dr. Christopher Thurber, co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook: Everything You Need to Find, Choose and Get Ready for Overnight Camp and Skip the Homesickness. Not only has Dr. Thurber spent years researching the topic of homesickness as a clinical psychologist, he's got plenty of first-hand experience, having worked at a summer camp for the past 17 years. While almost all kids feel some homesickness, Thurber says only about 1 in 14 will experience a distressing degree of homesickness and only 1 in 100 kids will have to return home early because of it.
How to Prevent Strong Homesickness
How to Prevent Strong Homesickness
In a way, homesickness is a good sign. It means your child loves her home and family. But to keep it from interfering with her camp adventure, Dr. Thurber recommends the following strategies.
Include your child in the decision making.
"Kids who feel forced to go to camp are more likely to feel homesick," warns Thurber. While kids as young as 7 years old can have a great time at camp, your child is the best judge of when she's ready to go. Once your child shows interest, involve her in choosing the type of camp, location and length of stay.
Talk about homesickness.
While you shouldn't force a child to attend camp, you may be able to convince a reluctant child by discovering what his concerns are. "In all kids, there's some part of them that feels a little nervous about what's going to happen when they get to camp," says Thurber. "Try to figure out why the child is hesitating and then address that." A kid-to-kid chat also works wonders. Find another child who has gone to camp who can also answer some of your child's questions. "Kids are much more persuasive than adults when it comes to relating a kid experience," says Thurber.
Take if from eleven-year-old Annabelle Loudon, whose been going to camp for three years: "You have so much fun at camp that if you think you're going to be homesick, you won't be because you won't have time to think about your mom or dad or your dog."
Arrange for practice time away from home.
If your child has not spent much time away from home, arrange a few practice visits to a friend or relative's house. Simulate the camp experience by writing letters instead of talking on the phone. After the visit, discuss what coping strategies worked best for your child.
Avoid making pick-up deals with your child.
Every summer, many well-meaning parents make this deal: "If you feel homesick, I'll come get you." Don't do it, cautions Thurber. "It is perhaps the single most destructive thing that parents can do in the camp situation to undermine their child's burgeoning independence." By doing this, you are unintentionally sending a very negative message to your child, says Thurber. "The subtext of the message is Homesickness is going to be so powerful and you're so incapable of dealing with it that the only solution is for me to come rescue you. That's an unfortunate message to send a child."
Instead of making deals that focus on failure, find out what your child can do to defeat this feeling. Ask your child, When you feel homesick, what can you think or do to help make things better? "In other words," says Thurber, "nurture their coping instead of undermining their independence."
Preventing Parental Anxiety
Preventing Parental Anxiety
As you help your child cope with homesickness, consider how are you are going to cope with childsickness while she's away. First of all, says Thurber, avoid expressing your own anxiety to your kids. While it's fine for parents to say I'm really going to miss you, it's not a good idea to say I'm going to be miserable without you. That sends an ambivalent message to kids, says Thurber. "How could a child not feel guilty being at camp know that their parent is miserable without them? Who would want to stay at camp knowing that?"
Instead, address your concerns. If you have some questions about the camp, call the camp director. If you simply feel uneasy about your child being away from home, talk with other camp parents who can empathize.
Mom Peg Loudon can certainly empathize: "That first year was awful, but I really had a lot of faith in the camp and their ability to help kids cope with homesickness. But I did have to keep busy and not think about it. It was hard."
Keeping in Touch
Keeping in Touch
Since many camps don't allow phone calls (these generally increase homesickness anyway), parents can practice some good old-fashioned letter writing. But don't get discouraged if you don't get too many letters back. "I think I got two letters the whole three weeks," says Peg Loudon. "The first one said something like, I'm sorry I didn't write sooner. I was having too much fun. Love, Annabelle."
Peg sends her daughters letters before they leave for camp so that the letters arrive on the first day. Mom Michelle Turner hid notes throughout her daughter Kristy's suitcase: in her socks, her soapdish, pockets. "She said at first she was really embarrassed, but then the other kids thought it was sort of neat," says Michelle. "It made it a little easier for her."
A good letter is chatty, upbeat and encouraging, says Thurber. Again, avoid expressing your anxieties in the letter as well as any distressing news like the death of a pet.
What if you get one of those dreaded homesick letters from your child? First of all, remember that the letter is a few days old and a lot may have changed. Peg Loudon tells the story of one girl at her daughter's camp who wrote a long homesick letter to her parents demanding to be picked up. The counselor said they would mail it after lunch and sent her off to get involved in activities by the lake. After a few hours, she came running back to the counselor, saying, "Where's that letter? Please don't mail it. I don't want to go home!"
Respond to a homesick letter by empathizing with your child and reminding him of the coping strategies you discussed prior to camp. For example,
I got your letter. It sounds like there are some times during the day when it's hard for you to be away from home. I think that's really normal and understandable. Don't forget all the things that you can think or do to help make things better, such as...
If you get another homesick letter, Thurber recommends calling the camp and speaking with the director and your child's cabin leader to determine the best course of action. In the rare instance when a child's homesickness is preventing him from having fun, consider a shortened stay. "I'm a firm believer that camp isn't jail, and it's probably unethical to keep a child at camp when homesickness is very severe and chronic," says Thurber. However, try to frame it as a success experience. Surprisingly, many kids who leave early happily return to camp the following year.
At camp, kids have a wonderful opportunity to grown in independence, make new friends, and develop social skills. But the experience can be even better if families prepare for it psychologically, says Thurber. He compares it to taking a vacation. No one would just get on a plane and go. "Sometimes there's a little less preparation that goes into summer camp because people think they're all the same and just go to the closest one. But in fact it deserves a little more thoughtful attention and preparation, especially if it's a kid's first time away from home."
Camp Spirit: Summer camp information from the authors of The Summer Camp Handbook.
American Camping Association
Camp Fire Boys and Girls
National Camp Association