Moomah the Magazine
Sending Off A Happy Camper

Sending Off A Happy Camper

-- Joanna A. Robin, Ph.D.
Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CUCARD)

This is the time of year when time becomes unstructured - the bells and rules of school are no longer, and kids are free to roam, play and connect with each other independently. For many kids, much of this independent socializing happens at Summer Camp. Often the high point in many of our minds as the time when we made our own rules, found our creativity at the craft table, maybe even had our first kiss, summer camp can be what your child most looks forward to in the year. But it may also pose some new feelings and anxieties which require that both parent and child do some work to understand and move beyond.

For children who tend to be more anxious, the idea of camp can be a looming, dark, and frightening idea and one to avoid at all costs. Some anxiety is normal for young children, especially those going off to camp for the first time. Kinds wonder, "Will I make new friends?" "What if the kids don’t like me?" "What if I miss you too much?" "Where will you and daddy be all summer?" "Will you forget about me?" Most children will adjust within the first few days and eventually grow out of these anxious jitters. They learn right away that their thoughts were just that - thoughts and not realities. They realize there are plenty of kids around to meet and make friends with, the counselors are really fun and caring people, and after the moment they watch you leave, they know the world has not ended and the fun begins.

Still, if you’re beginning to feel that your soon-to-be camper is not showing the right amount of “I can’t wait to bust out of here and have fun," enthusiasm but rather they are unpacking their bags faster than you can pack, and hiding the hiking boots and sleeping bag in all sorts of odd places, here are a few tips for you parents to make the transition to camp easier.

Prepare your child for the start of camp early on.

If possible, try to visit any day camp with your child before the session begins and bring a camera along to take photographs of your child enjoying himself. Looking through these photos in the weeks before leaving can often help your child become familiar with the camp.  If your child is going to an overnight camp where he or she will sleep away from home, watch the camp’s video or look at the website together. Finding out the daily schedule and the counselors’ names ahead of time will help you talk to your child about what the days will be like and who will take care of him. You may consider connecting with any child in your school or neighborhood who may be going away to camp with your child. Or, if your child is interested in pretend play, you can also role-play dropping them off at camp successfully. Finally, borrowing books at your local library on starting camp (or school) may lead to valuable discussions about your child’s fears: read the books together, asking questions and talking through feelings before they happen.

Talk about emotions.

As parents, we may be tempted to immediately offer reassurance at the first sign of our child’s anxiety, assume we know what our child is afraid of, or attempts to minimize our child’s concerns with advice such as, “There is nothing to be scared of. Camp will be fun!”  Instead of downplaying their feelings, try to normalize your child’s anxiety and ask them about what they fear will happen while away from home. Try to validate their concerns while helping them feel brave. For example: “It is okay to feel scared about camp. I felt scared too when it was my first day... Then I started to have so much fun and I began to feel brave! I wonder if this might happen to you.”  More to the point, ask your child what they think they can do to help alleviate their feelings of fear. A conversation may go something like this:

"Mom, what if I don’t make any friends?" 

"Todd, tell me what you did to make friends at school."

"Well, I guess I sat next to kids and we started talking. I went to their house to play and we had fun!"

"Great. Now, tell me what you can do to make friends at camp."

"I can say hi to the kids when I get there. And, I’ll see who is in my cabin. Maybe I can sit with some kids at lunch and get to know them.  Or, I can ask the counselor to introduce me to some kids."

"That’s great! And remember, you won’t be the only new camper this year, so there will be other kids who are new and trying to make friends, too."

 

Show confidence.

When the first day of camp arrives, you might feel your own anxiety rise. Keep those worries to yourself and show your child that you are confident in their ability to rise to the challenge. At the dreaded moment of drop-off, resist the urge to ask your child permission to leave. Instead, inform your child that you are leaving and that you are looking forward to seeing him after camp. Make this announcement as calmly and confidently as possible. And definitely don’t sneak away without saying goodbye to your child -- this will only increase their anxiety level. Give one hug and one kiss and keep walking!

Make appropriate plans to contact your child. 

Don’t promise to call every day or Skype every night!  Check with the camp about how often you will have telephone contact (some camps allow this infrequently, if at all), whether there is email or snail mail, and what you can send in care packages (some camps discourage sending candy, for example).  This will allow you to talk to your child with specifics about what they can expect (and look forward to) and what the other children will be doing.  “No worries, Matt.  I will send you letters every few days and I’m going to give you envelopes and paper that already have stamps and are addressed, so you can send us updates on how much fun you’re having!”

Ask Camp counselors/teachers for help.

Children with separation anxiety may benefit from knowing that there is a safe person at school or camp they can talk with if they are having anxiety. Ask the head counselor to play this role for your child, as this person usually has more experience than the typical camp counselor.


Familiarize yourself with the camp staff. 

Whether your child is going to a sleep away or a day camp, talk with the camp director about how they handle homesickness and separation anxiety.  When do they call you?  How do they address the child’s feelings?  How much experience do they and the camp counselors have with anxiety and children?  Then ask yourself: Does the camp’s approach to supporting new campers with anxiety make sense to you?  If so, then forge ahead in union with the camp director but if not, perhaps it’s best to find another camp that is more in line with your parenting philosophy and in what you want for your child’s summer experience.

Teach your child some calming techniques. 

Before she goes away, spend time teaching her how to breathe deeply and calmly: practice this together at different times during the day.  Search for websites where you can download some meditation and relaxation apps for your child’s iPod or phone, as these will be helpful before leaving for camp to learn how to self-soothe and relax in new situations.  If your child gravitates towards items of sentimentality, plan to build a “soothing box” that contains items that will remind your child of home when she’s feeling stressed or anxious.  We like to put lavender sachets, a favorite photo or two, a notepad with colored pencils for drawing or keeping a journal, and some index cards with coping thoughts that your child can refer to such as “I’m making new friends at camp!” “What new activity will I try this week?” This little collection of tools can be something which brings your child some confidence and the inner-strength to put their own fears to rest. 

Keep your anxiety under control. 

Okay, so maybe your camp experience wasn’t the best when you were younger.  Bear in mind that was your experience, not your child’s!  Don’t let your anxiety get in the way of what may be a great time for your son or daughter!  Soothe yourself…talk to friends who have successfully sent away happy campers - don’t dwell on the past. Do keep a focus on what your child has to gain while away, whether just during the day or for several weeks.  Think about what you can do with the time… Revisit the romance with your partner?  Clean out the closets?  Take up tennis again or golf? Volunteer at a local animal shelter? Visit your old friends?  This is a good opportunity for both you and your child to grow in many ways.

Sending your child to camp is an exciting but often overwhelming moment. Using some simple coping techniques will ease your child’s anxiety and, with practice, it will become easier for your child to look forward to these experiences of independance. As always, if your child continues to have difficulty separating from you, consulting an expert earlier rather than later may be helpful to send them off as a happy camper!

Posted in: Parenting   

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