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Home is where the heart is…. What parents need to know about homesickness and summer camp

Two boys at summer campThis 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!

Do Not’s

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.


Why camp is great for kids (and parents too)

Boy in the woodsGod, I hated camp.

No, that’s not really true. I didn’t hate all camps – I loved the bare bones country day camp I grew up at (where the only “facilities” were a lovely lakefront, a dusty/muddy field and a falling down barn), and some of my all-time best memories are from my teen years as a sleepaway camp counselor.

I just hated the fancy camp my parents inexplicably sent me to the summer I turned 11. I was a bookish, slightly awkward tween stuck in a cabin full of queen bees and wannebes. To say I didn’t fit it would be a significant understatement. One of the counselors made fun of my clothes.  (Apparently shopping at Miracle Mart didn’t put me on the fashion radar.) I somehow got stuck stacking the plates at every single mealtime, and was so socially marginal I didn’t realize until years later the kind of social collusion this must have involved.

But I digress.

This was a different era, before it was possible to research camps online, before the very concept of camp consultants crossed our minds. We had grown up chewing on our lead-painted crib bars, bicycling without helmets and sitting on our dad’s lap in the driver’s seat, so what did we know?

That one negative experience certainly didn’t stop me from wanting to send my own three girls to summer camp. Our older two have loved their few weeks each summer at sleepaway camp, and our youngest is experiencing it for the very first time. It’s been very clear to us that their weeks in a lakeside cabin full of kids have been great for them in all kinds of ways. It turns out that they have been wonderful for us parents stuck at home too. Here, in no particular order, are some of these benefits:

Your kids grow up. Not just literally (although the evidence suggests that kids tend to grow faster in the summertime), but in terms of their independence and maturity. The camp dynamic forces kids to organize their own stuff, choose what they will wear, eat and what activities to add to their schedules. Some camps let the campers decide when (or if) they will shower, write letters home or wear their sun hats. The increased autonomy teaches kids consequences for their actions — consequences many of today’s parents never let their kids experience for themselves.

You didn’t wear sunscreen? Ouch, that sunburn is going to really hurt. You didn’t brush your teeth for a solid week? Your friends and bunkmates may avoid spending time with you because your breath stinks and your teeth are full of yellow gunk. You didn’t wipe your feet off before you got into bed? You’ll spend a night in a sleeping bag full of sand.

We can lecture till we are red in the face, but there is no better lesson than the consequences of our own actions, a philosophy of self-reliance beautifully explained in Wendy Mogel’s book, Blessing of a Skinned Knee.

Your kids relax. It isn’t just the lack of homework that counts. It’s the absence of televisions, computers, DS games, iPods and cellphones. They are spending loads of time outdoors, and plenty of time doing physical activities. Isn’t this what we plead with them to do every day? And yet at home it’s an uphill battle and constant source of tension and conflict. In camp there is no choice, and parents are removed from the equation.

There are no hectic schedules, doctor’s appointments, frantic carpools to soccer games, and overcrowded family commitments. The camp takes care of making sure everyone gets where they need to be. There is even scheduled quiet time, and hanging out by the lake/ pool time. Staring at clouds time.

Try and remember this if you haven’t gotten a letter or email, or you don’t see them doing anything in the pictures posted on the camp website. All of this relaxing time doesn’t jive so well with the technological surveillance camps now offer. It’s tempting to spend hours hitting the “refresh” button on the website in the hopes of getting a glimpse of your kid, but this can also make you crazy. (I’m so glad our daughters’ camp doesn’t post pictures — I would be in total stalker mode.)

Your kids spend time with kids of all ages. Especially their counselors. And for some reason these 18 and 19-year-olds are able to get your kids to do magical things, such as making their beds or stacking their dishes without being reminded. New York Times blogger Michael Thompson says this is because kids are wired to emulate and closely observe older children. The influence of these high school and college-aged kids (who are also way cooler and better looking than us relatively ancient parents) is their due for hanging out with younger kids. After all, as Thompson points out, “In our age-segregated society, camp is the only place in America where an 11-year-old can get the sustained attention of a 19-year-old.”

Without all the complicated emotional connections of a parent-child relationship, these enthusiastic but inexperienced teens tend to be much more successful at encouraging our kids to ride horses, windsurf, water ski or eat vegetables.

Parents get some perspective. Taking a bit of a break from the day-to-day dynamics of parenting is refreshing for everyone. If younger siblings are still at home you can give them some rare “only child” time. Our youngest daughter absolutely loved this in past summers, though she also missed having her sisters around. And if you become temporary empty nesters you can find some time for yourself or your spouse. My husband and I are enjoying two weeks together for the first time in 13 years, and we’ve really enjoyed being able to spontaneously hop on our bikes after work, or head out for an impromptu movie. It’s easier to talk about things other than our children, and the brief reprieve from making lunches, doing laundry and cleaning up has meant a lot more free time.

The challenge is to hold on to all of these things when the kids come home. It’s easy to slip back into old habits. Remember that your kids now know how to sweep, stack their dishes, make their beds and organize their own clothes (more or less). Build on this independence by incorporating it into their daily routine. They have spent hours outside without being “too tired” to do anything but play on an iPad or Xbox.

Set your expectations high. Don’t give in to old ways just because it’s easier that way. You may need to re-sweep an hour after your eight-your-old empties the dustpan, but taking the broom for a spin is the only way she will learn good technique. Let them show you what they can do. You may have to be patient, but you won’t be disappointed.

And maybe, just maybe if we can hold on to some of the lessons learned from camp, we can hold on to a little bit of summer all year long.