Kids participating in summer camp—and even most summer camp staff members, if they are being honest—get homesick from time to time during the summer. It is not unnatural for a child to miss the comfort and security of their home, parents, pets and even siblings.
Campers coming from good homes with loving parents are surely going to miss that environment when they're placed in a cabin with strangers and their routines are drastically altered. Homesickness can even spring up from getting too much mail (as well as not enough mail). As parents and camp professionals, we can't foresee every outcome, but we can be well informed about how to deal with homesickness.
Experiencing homesickness is actually one of the benefits of a summer camp stay. It helps campers grow, expand their limits and develop alternative support systems away from home. Homesick campers are simply campers who need that little bit of extra care and attention a well-trained counselor can provide.
How can parents help their children in this process?
Before your child heads to camp
Don't turn a journey to camp into a guilt trip
Parents unknowingly set their child up for homesickness by saying things like "The home will be empty without you" or "I don't know what I'll do without you." While well-intentioned and heartfelt, these statements can make your child feel guilty if they start having a great time at camp. Show faith in your child and the camp by creating excitement about it. Talk about the awesome activities and the great new friends they will make.
Don't give your child an easy out
This may sound harsh, but if you're sending your child to camp with "Give it a try; if you don't like it, I'll come and pick you up," then save yourself, the camp and the child time and energy, and don't send the child to camp. When kids know that you will "rescue" them, it won't matter how friendly the staff is or how incredible the activities are. Giving a child an "out" will backfire more often than not.
Let kids know they'll be safe
Camps approach homesickness by creating a safe, caring environment. Staff will keep camp free of bullying and peer pressure by:
- Actively supervising the campers.
- Listening to the interactions within the cabin group.
- Leading the campers in group activities.
- Knowing your campers: are they in camp alone, with friends or with a sibling?
- Creating an environment where friendships develop easily.
Once your child is at camp
You sent your child to camp because it's fun, yes, but also to give your child an opportunity for growth within a safe, caring environment. Give your child the space for this growth to occur. How can children expand their limits while being held tightly? You must show your child that you trust them to grow and that you trust the camp to look after your child's best interests.
If the camp calls you to let you know that your child is having adjustment issues beyond the normal, help them by giving valuable insights on your child's personality. Keep in mind: Camps don't want an unhappy child moping around. Homesickness is very contagious! A good camp will work with homesick children. Staff will help get them involved in activities. A bunch of counselors will be working around the clock to help your child integrate into camp and make friends. Friends, after all, are the best antidotes to homesickness. But I realize that even if the camp doesn't need to contact you, you can't simply "turn off" being a parent and stop worrying. So for your sanity, speak to the camp staff. Ask how your child is doing. What activities are the campers doing? Is your child making friends?
Don't speak with your child
Hearing a voice from home is enough to trigger a rush of homesickness in even the most well-adjusted camper. Send letters encouraging them to enjoy the activities—and to take time to shower and brush their teeth. Do not write how much you miss them. How can they enjoy camp when their parents are missing them so much?
If the camp thinks that it's a good idea for you to speak to your child, I can offer only one piece of advice—a phrase I have seen work 99 percent of the time. Take a deep breath and repeat after me: "You are not coming home. You made a commitment to go to camp, and that is what you will do. You wanted to go to camp. We will pick you up at the end of the session. I love you. I believe you'll have a great time at camp."
Then hang up! This might be the hardest call you will ever make. Experience has taught me that children will say anything to get home, and they will always attack the parent they think will buckle under pressure. If that's you, give the phone to your partner. Allow your child the freedom to find himself, make new friends, find his inner strength and develop his self-confidence.
Ian Brassett has worked in sleep-away camps since 1988, starting as a counselor and soccer instructor in a four- and eight-week summer camp. He is currently general manager of Pali Mountain, a facility that houses Pali Adventures, a residential one- and two-week specialty summer camp in Southern California, as well as Pali Institute and Pali Mountain Retreat and Conference Center.