Being away from home and being happy.
The tradition of ‘going away to Camp’ is well established in many countries. In the United States going to camp is almost a ‘right of passage’ and thousands of children pack their bags in July to leave home for a few weeks in order to experience the Great Outdoors, be with friends, make new friends and to become a little more independent.
Every year we have a small number of students who find being away from home very stressful. Indeed, some never actually get to the point of being able to pack and go to camp. This page is written with those families in mind, in the hope that together we can help to allow every child to enjoy camp and to be comfortable with being a small distance away from home without the anxiety which they experience.
Try to remember that if you are anxious about your child being away for the week – your child will almost certainly pick-up your anxiety and will be anxious too!
The following abstract is from the American Camp Association web site. I enclose the link to this web site in case parents and students wish to read further.
What is it?
Homesickness is, above all, a normal feeling. It is the natural result of separating from home and loved ones. In a recent study, nearly 96 percent of all boys and girls who were spending two weeks or more at overnight camp reported some homesickness on at least one day. Almost all children (and grown-ups!) feel homesick when they’re away from home. People’s feelings simply vary in intensity.
What causes it?
There are several factors that put children at greater risk for becoming homesick. For example, children with little previous experience away from home, children who have low expectations of camp, children who feel forced to go to camp, children who are unsure whether adults will help them if they need help, children who have little practice coping with negative emotions, and children whose parents express a lot of anxiety are most likely to feel homesick.
You may be surprised to learn that some factors have nothing to do with the intensity of homesickness. These include geographic distance between home and camp and the presence of a friend from home at camp.
When is it a problem?
Most feelings of homesickness are not problematic. In fact, missing home isn’t a problem until it becomes a preoccupation. When the feelings of sadness and anxiety associated with missing home become so strong that making friends, having fun, sleeping, eating, and participating in activities is difficult, something must be done.
What can be done?
It used to be thought that feelings of missing home disappeared spontaneously after a few days at camp. Although this is true for some cases of mild homesickness, research has demonstrated that if left unchecked, homesickness can intensify over time. The best remedy is a two-pronged approach:
(1) Prevent homesickness at home, before it starts; and (2) Actively cope at camp, if natural feelings of homesickness reach problematic levels.
The best at-home prevention strategies include:
- Working together as a family to plan, and pack.
- Discuss what camp will be like well before your child leaves, acknowledging feelings; consider role-playing anticipated camp situations such as using a flashlight to find the bathroom
- Experimenting with the best coping strategies during this practice separation.
- Address worries as your child brings them up. Help him or her apply the principles of knowing the facts and making a plan. Visit the camp’s website and share what you know about the area and the people there.
- Remind your kids that camp is fun. Have him or her imagine themselves in that environment, having fun and learning new things.
- Resist the urge to offer a solution immediately. If he has specific concerns, such as, “What if I miss you?” help him figure out a couple things that he can do if that happens. It’s better if the ideas come from your child.
- Prepare with sleepovers. If your child has never spent a night away from you, arrange for some sleepovers with friends. The first couple of times you might call or text one another. But work toward being away from each other without contact, because that’s how it’s going to be at camp.
The most common mistake parents make is the Pick-Up Deal. It’s normal for children to ask, “What if I feel homesick?” Tell your child that some feelings of homesickness are normal and help him practice coping before camp starts. But never ever say, “If you feel homesick, I’ll come and get you.” This conveys a message of doubt and pity that undermines children’s confidence and independence. Pick-Up Deals become mental crutches and self-fulfilling prophecies for children as soon as they arrive at camp. If, after spending practice time away from home, a child is still very anxious about overnight camp, consider waiting a until next summer.
The Good News
When children arrive at camp with a repertoire of coping strategies and some practice time away from home under their belts, they are ready for those normal feelings of homesickness. Sure, they’ll miss home, but they’ll know exactly what to think and do when it bothers them. Best of all, the staff at a high quality camp will be there to help. Nothing boosts children’s self-esteem quite like overcoming a bout of homesickness and learning how good they are at controlling the amount of fun they have. Camp truly is a classroom for life lessons.