I Want to Come Home: How to Prepare Your Child for Sleepaway Camp
How to help your homesick child without caving in.
Camp season is here. You’ve talked about it all year but now there’s this pit in your child’s stomach. You encourage, you wave goodbye and the tears begin. What do you do when you receive the call, “Mommy, I want to come home!”
Do you bring him home? Promise presents and bribes?
Before we speak about how to handle the situation, let’s be aware of two points.
First, understand that feeling homesick or anxious is normal. It does not mean that something is wrong with your child. Being away from home in a new environment can be tough, especially after Covid. Children of all ages can be feeling homesick but it is especially common amongst younger kids or those who have not really ever spent time away from home.
Second, it is best to deal with the problem before it occurs. Some children are genuinely not ready for camp. They cry just thinking about it, show anxiety and find it difficult to go on sleepovers. Research has shown that it is healthier to think about prevention. Parents who work on their children’s worries and fears before the child is in the bunkhouse will be more successful than those who simply ship their kids off. Believing that your child will just tough it out is not the answer.
The child who is not adjusted is different than the child who is emotionally and physically ready to go, but will be homesick at times. We are describing the typical camper who is ready to go but may need some help adapting to the camp experience.
Three Ways to Help Your Child Prepare for Sleepaway Camp
Tell your child what camp life is like. Describe a typical day along with which sports and activities to expect. Explain what happens at meal times and in the dining room. If possible, show photos of the grounds and bunkhouses. The unknown creates fear. Helping your child feel familiar allows for a feeling of safety.
Reassure him that being scared or worried is normal.
Talk with your child about his concerns and identify emotions. Reassure him that being scared or worried is normal. He will be okay.
2. Don’t Berate
Never make a child feel badly for expressing fears and emotions. Don’t say things like “Don’t be a baby,” “Come on, this is ridiculous!” Not only will you shut your child down but he will think twice before sharing with you in the future. Listen well to what your child has to say and don’t belittle his feelings. Convey a sense of understanding.
3. Gain Independence
It is important to help your child graduate to independence by experiencing small moments throughout the year. Sleepovers in the homes of trusted friends, grandparents and family members are a good way to begin. Help your child ease into the idea that “I can spend time away from home, even if I’m nervous. I can do this.” It’s better not to wait for camp to be the first time a child is truly sleeping out of the house for an extended time.
Going off to camp with good friends can help your child feel more secure. Some parents want their children to meet new kids from different backgrounds and communities. That is a wonderful idea but not every child can acclimate while knowing absolutely no one. When a child feels isolated, sad and lonely, it becomes difficult to make friends. It may even create a situation where a child is easily bullied. It is best to put thought into who your child will be spending his summer with and not assume that it will just work out.
How can you best help the adjustment?
1. Bring a bit of home.
Nighttime can be the hardest time for your child. It helps to have something from home --either visual, a scent or a sound. A favorite stuffed animal, family photos, linen or a pillow from home, all help create a feeling of security.
2. Create a toolbox of coping skills
To help your child be prepared, give tools for better coping. Some days in camp will be difficult. There will be sport games lost, tension with bunkmates, and food that will not be to your liking. Trips and experiences may bring disappointment. Sometimes you will feel lonely and sad.
3. Teach self-care skills.
What should you do when you feel alone? What is the best reaction when a bunkmate makes you feel bad? How can you calm yourself when feeling anxious? What is a good way to make new friends?
4. Teach positive self-talk
Guide your child to think positively when he is starts to view camp with a negative eye. A great way to help oneself is by combating down thoughts with upbeat reflections. I call this skill ‘brainwork’ – the art of deliberate thinking, a wonderful life skill that will bring peace of mind beyond summer camp. The moment he starts feeling badly, teach him to switch gears and think to himself: I am safe even though I am not at home. Or compose a positive sentence together for your child to draw upon whenever he begins to feel homesick.
Empathy is not the same as sympathy. You do not want to have your child feel as if you are commiserating with him. No pity party. Get rid of the drama.
Empathy means that you are warm, interested and paying attention to feelings. Tell your child that you understand it is difficult and offer reassurance. Daily calls will not help the situation. It is best for your child to be busy and active. Boredom reinforces feelings of homesickness.
Do not offer prizes and bribes. Do not offer to bring him home. Instead offer support and encouragement.
One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is the knowledge that you believe in him. Write a note for your child to see your words and become strengthened whenever he is feeling homesick.
Tell your child: I believe in you. Even if you are feeling scared, even if sometimes you are feeling nervous, it’s okay. I am confident in you. I know that you’ve got this. I love you.