For many families, summertime can mean sleepaway camp, but knowing what to do when your child is homesick at camp can be challenging, and can cause anxiety for our kids and even the calmest of parents.
Camp can be a powerful learning opportunity for kids to explore activities and situations a home environment simply can’t provide, in addition to fostering independence and social skills that can only develop when kids are on their own.
So impactful is sleepaway camp to kids’ overall development that Michael Thompson, PhD in his bestselling book, Homesick and Happy, argues few childhood experiences are more developmentally advantageous than going to camp.
Part of what makes camp so wonderful is also what makes it hard.
Working through homesickness, and the normal anxiety of being away from home, can be tough, but Thompson believes is one the most important and common developmental milestones kids can face in growing independence. I couldn’t agree more.
In the midst of compiling needed supplies, procuring and labeling clothes, and preparing for camp travel, it can be hard to think in advance about your child’s attitude about being away, much less find the time to discuss it with them, or even know how.
The busy whirlwind of simply arriving at camp can be a major family accomplishment, and one that can leave kids and parents exhausted. And sometimes even unprepared for saying goodbye or navigating those first few days apart.
Even if you have sent your child with a favorite stuffed animal, pictures of home, and lots of love and hugs, you still can be caught off guard when homesickness strikes for either of you. Fighting back tears at drop off, missing them terribly, wondering how and when to write, or worse, getting that first letter home telling you how miserable they are and how they want to come home.
Knowing how to handle the separation can be harder than it might seem for both of you, in spite of how prepared you thought you were.
And while there are no easy answers when it comes to helping your child cope with homesickness, these 8 strategies can help your child cope with the anxiety of being away from home.
- Leave a note for your child to read the first night, or as early as possible: Often the first night, and first few days, are the hardest and loneliest for kids at camp. The fatigue of getting to and settled at camp, mixed with all the newness of camp, can tempt kids to feel overwhelmed, and miss home even if they are enjoying themselves. A personal note from you can be a real comfort, especially when it reminds them it is ok to miss home and also have fun – that’s part of being at camp – and that being on their own will get easier in the coming days.
- Aim to write to your child often, if not every day at the beginning, even if it is a short email or note. Especially for kids new to camp, knowing you are thinking about them as much as they are thinking of you (or more!) can help them feel the embrace of home through the rhythm of written communication. I love the email feature some large camps offer because I can copy and paste many elements of the letters I write to each child. I have also dictated and printed notes to them quickly mailed off – much faster than handwriting. Of course, sometimes I goof and miss a day, or send the wrong letter to the wrong child, and luckily we all have a good laugh over it. I like to think witnessing my mistakes in general allows them to be more accepting of themselves, including their uncomfortable feelings.
- Highlight encouragement about camp. Tell them how proud you are of them being at camp, how excited you are for them to have fun new adventures, and how interested you are in hearing about what they are learning and doing. More important than simply shaping what you want them to write about in their letters to you, you are encouraging them to focus on the positive aspects of being at camp. This is a key strategy of dealing effectively with homesickness.
- Downplay fun at home: Try not to focus too much on the parts of home you know your child might miss, and focus instead on the things your child generally isn’t fond of. For example, “Things are pretty quiet here – dad and I are getting some projects done around the house and catching up on chores” rather than “Dad and I had a lot of fun last weekend with the Smiths on the boat. The usual gang was there, and asked all about you – wish you could have been with us!!” Instead of talking about how much fun you may be having, ask them about what fun they are having.
- Share your feelings positively: Especially if you are feeling any of the same positive feelings your child might be, share them. When I have had opportunities to be courageous in trying something new while my kids are away, I always try to share it with them as a way of modeling how good it feels to use anxiety to solve challenges they might also be facing. When it comes to your feelings about them, likewise keep them positive. Of course, tell them that you love them, but avoid telling them you miss them, or that it was hard for you to say goodbye, etc. Worrying about your feelings can compound any anxiety or distress they might be feeling, and is generally ill advised. Instead stick to encouraging them to make the most of their time at camp, and remind them how fast the time will fly by.
- If you get a homesick letter, take a deep breath, and consider getting more information: Assuming you get a letter that was written several days ago, rather than an urgent phone call from camp, consider the real possibility that things are considerably better now than they were when she wrote her plea to come home. At least check the facts before you get too far down the path of troubleshooting how to get her home. Getting an objective assessment of how your child is doing can help you know how to best respond.
- Expect to worry, and possibly doubt yourself, if your child is actively homesick. Any reasonable parent would worry, and possibly doubt their months long decision to send a child to camp when they hear first-hand their child’s misery and suffering. Understanding your child’s pain and wanting to stop it is part of what makes you a responsive, loving parent. But making room for your child to work through this challenge and take care of himself is also part of being a great parent. It is possible that your child being unhappy is part of you having done the right thing – allowing him the opportunity cultivate courage in coping with his feelings about facing something new and being away from home.
- Respond to your child’s request to come home carefully: Many camps offer fantastic advice and resources on how to help your child cope with homesickness, and especially requests to come home. One of my favorites is from Rockbrook Camp for Girls on how to respond to a homesick child’s letter. I don’t think I could have penned a more perfect letter myself, and reading another parent’s correspondence can help you create your own response should you need to.
There are certainly circumstances where homesickness can be serious enough to warrant coming home, especially if there are extenuating family circumstances, or serious emotional challenges that can make staying at camp too hard. But if after getting the facts and knowing your child, you think he can handle their homesickness, research shows he’ll be better off sticking it out at camp, with the help of your support and encouragement from home.
A rite of passage in growing up and leaving home, coping with homesickness isn’t easy for kids, and isn’t easy for parents either. Allowing kids the opportunity to cultivate independence takes guts as a parent, and requires guts in our kids too.
Our support and encouragement not only helps kids learn they can cope with the anxiety of being away from home, but teaches an even more valuable truth: that we believe in them.
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.