This is a guest post from Corrie Sirota M.S.W., P.S.W.
I am a camper through and through. I always loved it – everything about it – the smell of nature, bonfires, roasting marshmallows, and quiet nights. For me, camp is a magical experience. As the social worker at a residential camp for more than six years, I saw my fair share of campers who presented with all sorts of challenges and issues.
Additionally, over the past several years I have had the privilege of working at numerous camps facilitating workshops and training to camp staff and administration. The most common concern that is raised in almost all camp settings is the issue of homesickness.
A child’s first experience away from home can bring out a number of reactions and feelings that may affect their camping experience that summer and possibly the many summers that follow.
First and foremost, remember that every child is different and unique and as such every child will handle their separations differently and it is NORMAL to feel sad and lonely at times. In fact, it is my feeling that we send the wrong message when we label it “Homesickness,” as it is NOT an illness, merely a feeling of missing home.
It is with this in mind that I have created a list of suggestions to help ensure that your child’s first experience away from home be a positive one.
Prior to going to camp:
- Do Provide relevant information to head staff and counsellors about rituals and habits that will help them relate to your child (e.g. doesn’t like to be hugged, needs stuffed animal to sleep)
- Do send special stuffed animals, blankets, and pictures of family
- Do inform your child if you will be travelling while they will be in camp.
- Do talk about what a great experience they are going to have.
- Do show excitement
- Do visit the camp on an open house – it can prove very helpful for new campers to see the “lay of the land” prior to getting off the bus that first day. This provides them with a sense of familiarity; it also helps you see the places and spaces they will/can refer to in letters home.
While your child is away at camp:
- Do Write letters at least 2x per week; ask questions related to camp activities
- Do say you miss them – it’s OK to let them know how you feel, they want to know you care.
- Do provide information about campers about siblings, grandparents, and family pets – within reason; for if you tell them something bad is happening at home this will only serve to raise their anxiety. Information is important but less is more depending on the issue!
Prior to camp:
- Don’t talk about what fun YOU will have while they are away – this only serves to make them miss you and home.
- Don’t share the anxiety you may feel about them leaving home for the first time – Children take their cues from your lead…therefore, if you demonstrate that you are concerned, worried, anxious about them going (while normal particularly first time campers) you may inadvertently be sending them the message “I don’t trust that you can handle the camp experience”
- Don’t (at least try not to) cry “too much” at the bus stop. Consider what message you want to send them Children worry when they see their parents upset – is your tear-streaked face the last image you want them to see of you as the bus pulls away?
- Don’t hang around too long at the bus stop (after your child has gotten on the bus) as it may create anxiety for both you and your child. The longer you linger the more difficult it may be for you. Summer camp is the most wonderful experience you can offer your child, be happy for them and ENJOY the break!
While your child is away at camp:
- Don’t write letters that include notes about what fabulous activities they are missing at home – again, this may send a message that they are missing something at home and will want to be there.
- Don’t joke about moving while they are gone or doing something to their room (YES, parents have done this on many occasions). There is a fine line between joking with your child and sarcasm. I remember my daughter’s first sleepaway camp experience, we arrived at the bus stop and I instantly remembered that I had forgotten her medical card. When I told the Camp Director he looked at her and said, “Well, I guess she can’t go to camp then.” Naturally, he was joking – however, she instantly broke into hysterics believing this was the truth. I politely (albeit rather upset myself) asked him to “fix it.” He sheepishly explained that he was just kidding and that of course she would be able to come to camp. Talk about an unnecessary rocky start!
These gentle reminders along with understanding the specific needs of your child will prove to enhance the entire family’s summer experience.
Corrie Sirota M.S.W., P.S.W.