Dear Mom and Dad,
I hate this camp! I hate the food. I miss you and I feel terrible. I want to come home. Will you come and pick me up?
Does this sound familiar? If your child is going to sleep-away camp for the first time, they may experience feelings of homesickness, a form of separation anxiety. 95% of all kids experience it. The good news is that homesickness is treatable and preventable.
Addressing Feelings of Homesickness
Here are a few ideas for addressing and even preventing homesickness when a child goes off to summer camp for the first time.
- Involve the child in the decision. Whenever a child is involved in the decision-making process, they will have increased feelings of control about being away from home. When children feel forced, homesick feelings intensify.
- Teach the child that homesickness is typical. Children often feel they are the only ones to experience these feelings. It can be a big relief for them to know this is not the case.
- Give the child skills and hope. Provide them with the tools that will help them if they feel homesick while away. Encourage them not to isolate, but to stay active and be with others, and to talk it out with an adult.
- Organize practice times away. These could include one- night sleepovers with friends or a trip to Grandma’s. When they return, encourage them to talk about what coping strategies worked best if they became homesick.
- Work with them on letter writing. Make it really easy for them to stay in touch. Supply them with paper, pens and plenty of pre-stamped, pre-addressed envelopes.
- Send a letter ahead. Mail a letter to your child before she even goes to camp. That way, when she arrives, it will be a wonderful surprise and a piece of love from home.
- Take “tours” of the camp. Use websites, pamphlets and other materials to help familiarize your child with the camp. Have them speak with camp staff or alumni. Once they have met someone from the camp, a familiar face can go a long way in helping them feel safe and comfortable.
- Encourage friendships. Suggest that your child actively make new friendships and seek the support of trusted grownups.
- Check yourself. Avoid making anxious or ambivalent statements to your child about the separation from them. Giving children something to worry about will only increase thoughts of home. Express enthusiasm, confidence and optimism about the new experience. If YOU are anxious, your child will sense it and become anxious too. Even if you are concerned, act as if you are not!
- Use a wall calendar. Practice perspective on the time away by marking fun activities on a large calendar.
DON’T Make the “Pick-up Deal”
Although you might be tempted, NEVER make the “Pick-up Deal,” an offer to pick the child up at camp and bring them home if things don’t go well. Making this deal will dramatically reduce the chances of your child’s success at summer camp. This can convey to your child that you have little confidence in their ability to cope with a typical away-from-home feeling, and that the only solution is for you to rescue them. This deal can also plant the seed that your child will not like camp or that there might be something to be afraid of, suggesting that their only solution is to avoid or escape. Additionally, the “deal” undermines the surrogate caregivers (camp staff) who are trying to help your child cope with feelings of homesickness.
Just remember; when you say good-bye to your child on the camp bus, when you are sending them off with your love, support and belief in them, they will do just fine.
And so will you!
Dr. Frank J. Sileo is a New Jersey licensed psychologist and the Executive Director of The Center for Psychological Enhancement in Ridgewood, New Jersey. In his practice he works with children, adolescents, adults and families. He is an award winning author of five, soon to be seven children’s books including Bug Bites and Campfires: A Story for Kids about Homesickness. He is a national speaker on a variety of psychological topics and does school author visits. To learn more about Dr. Sileo, his work, and his books, please visit his website at www.drfranksileo.com.