Cultivating Courage: How Counselors Can Help Campers Cope With Homesickness
Big believers in sleep away camp and its capacity to foster growth and resilience, our kids have attended camp for many summers, but have been no strangers to homesickness. And yet, so positive has been their experience that my 17 year old daughter has returned to her beloved YMCA camp as a junior counselor this summer.
While visiting her last weekend to help catch up on laundry, errands, and rest, she asked me what she should say to campers who are homesick. She is with the youngest campers this summer, and has a new crew of 7 year olds who start camp every two weeks. A new group of first-time campers starting the next day, and she understandably wanted to make sure she was saying and doing the right thing since homesickness is such a common challenge for counselors.
Her question got us thinking about how to best handle this common, but critical, issue in kids who are brave enough to leave home, but sensitive enough to struggle a bit. The anxiety of being away from home isn’t limited to the youngest campers – it can strike at any age and is a key part of going away from home, no matter if to camp, to school, to travel, or to work.
Michael Thompson, PhD author of Homesick and Happy, identifies getting through homesickness as one of the most important developmental milestones of cultivating independence in kids. Coping with homesickness can be both painful and empowering, and is a key part of fostering resilience no matter what age.
Parents can of course help prepare their kids for homesickness, but counselors – often mere teenagers themselves – are on the frontlines helping campers cope. Learning as they go, these young adults are helping cultivate courage in campers as well as themselves.
After reviewing research and other expert advice on ways counselors can help campers cope with homesickness, these 7 strategies stood out:
- Listen to her and help her express her feelings (tell me what’s going on, what’s making you sad, etc.) Giving her your attention sends her the message that her feelings matter, she is not alone, and that she has someone at camp who cares. It’s hard to overstate how important this is. It may not feel like you are doing a lot by listening and being with her, but this is so much. By tolerating her feelings, you are showing her she can too. And over time, this sinks in.
- Let her know you understand, and that her feelings are normal. Validate that she has every reason to miss home and feel a little uncomfortable in a new setting with new people and routines, and give her space to tell you more. (I understand – this is your first time away – it can be really hard to be in a new place with new people, new routines, etc. Of course, you miss your family – that just means you love them, and they love you so much too, that’s why they wanted you to have the opportunity to come to camp!)
- Tell her a story about when you were homesick, and what helped you cope. Remind her of how you were a camper once too, or about a time when you tried something new that took a lot of guts. Tell her where you found your courage, and what helped you. This helps her see that you understand, that you’ve been through something similar yourself, and that got through it so she can too.
- Tell her how proud her parents are of her, and how they want her to have fun at camp even if it feels new and uncomfortable. Let her know how confident you are that she will have fun at camp, and that you are proud of her courage to leave home for a while to have some fun. It IS brave to be away from home for the first time, no matter how old you are, and it isn’t easy for anyone. But part of the magic of camp is exploring it on your own – and learning you can do it on your own – and that feels really good!
- Show her that she is not alone. Remind her she can talk to you anytime, and promise to help her have so much fun. Let her know she can talk to you anytime. You get it. But that there are great kids in her cabin who are waiting to get to know her better too. A strategy that can help the first day is making a fun game of getting to know each other through various versions of the name game. The sooner she gets to know her new camp “family,” the sooner she will feel less alone without hers.
- Focus on the fun ahead. Give her a preview of the fun parts of camp that are right around the corner – the stuff campers always love – and let her know she will enjoy it (even if she still misses home). Try to keep the time horizon tight since talking about time too far ahead can feel scary. “Tomorrow will be really fun because… then in two days, it will Tuesday and Tuesdays are super fun because…” Tell her what’s in store and. This sends an implicit message that she will feel better in a day or so (when she’s not so tired, hot, or anxious) and how much she is going to learn (and grow!)
- Make sure to keep her busy. Conventional wisdom holds that staying busy and having fun is the best way to distract kids from missing home, and can be a great way for anyone to cope with difficult feelings. As she has fun, she’s likely not to be as bothered by missing home. When you catch her having fun, celebrate it. Most kids get over homesickness in the first few days.
- Keep offering attention and encouragement. If a camper still thinks about home wistfully, remind her how it’s normal to miss home and still have fun participating in camp adventures. Talk about the fun she is having to help direct her focus to what she is doing, and what she is enjoying rather than missing home. Offer to draw a picture of what she really likes about camp, or write a letter home with her during rest period. Choosing to focus on the positives of camp is doing much more than get her through it. It is showing her the choices she has in how she thinks about camp, and cultivating courage to tolerate her feelings. Reinforcing her courage can go a long way in showing her how strong she is, and teaching her how good it feels to be brave.
Remember, every time you show up and engage with your campers enthusiastically, YOU and the other counselors are building resilience and independence in each of them. You are on the front lines offering them the brave (and fun!) choice to be at camp. Having fun with them makes them feel safe and loved, allows them to make friends, and invites them to engage in what camp has to offer.
Doing new things builds the strongest social bonds, and your campers are doing this EVERY time they bravely try something new, and have fun doing it. Every time they choose courage, they grow.
It might not feel like you are doing a lot when you stay upbeat and positive for your campers, but know that you are. Every day you show up with a warm smile, and an encouraging fun attitude, you offer them the chance, and the safety, to stretch and grow. You make camp real for each one of your campers, and it is because of your encouragement that they take the risks they do.
I’m so proud of all the counselors out there, who are modeling for campers how to be brave, independent and positive away from home, while they are still learning themselves. Bravo for camps for providing these amazing opportunities for kids and young adults of all ages, and to the parents whose support and trust make it possible.
Looking for more help in parenting or managing the anxiety of modern life? Check out my blog and connect with me on social media. For further resources in understanding and naming emotions, download my free ebook that includes lists of over 2000 feeling words, categorized by genre and severity.