Help your child combat the homesick blues during sleep-away camp

posted in the Washington Post on May 24, 2016:

Like that first day of kindergarten, it can be hard to know whom sleep-away camp drop off is most difficult for — us parents, or our quivering offspring, suddenly thrust into independence and all that comes with it. And these days, the disconnection is even more abrupt. Our phones allow us stay in touch during the regular school year, making even a few hours without contact tough. When I was young, it wasn’t unusual to spend a day without seeing or talking to my parents, and if a parent was away, we had to settle for a long-distance phone call every few days. These days we are blessed (or cursed) with the ability to keep in almost constant contact.

At camp, traditions die hard, and the connections to home — physical and digital — are meant to be severed, if temporarily. That digital umbilical cord known as a cellphone is suddenly and unceremoniously cut, leaving kids feeling homesick, and more often than not leaving us a bit kid-sick. Research shows  that homesick kids fall into two groups. Eighty percent of kids have a constant low-level homesickness, while the remaining 20 percent start with high levels that then increase. Even for those children, though, the pangs appear to get better a few days before pickup.

The good news is that homesickness of all kinds is normal. It is a sign of a strong bond — and love — between parent and child. In fact, research suggests up to 95 percent of even the happiest campers find themselves homesick from time to time, so it can help to prepare your children to remember that. And of course, just because other kids don’t look homesick or say they are, doesn’t mean they aren’t. “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides” can be wise words for kids to keep in mind for a summer, or even a week, away.

Here are four separation strategies that can help your child this summer:

Prepare and pack. Make the preparation exciting. Work together to pick out sleeping bags, write name tags for clothes and look at the camp website to get a sense of what it is like. Then pack together. Create an adventure by sleeping outside together one night, or letting them sleep in their sleeping bags in their beds. Consider packing a favorite comforting book or pillow to take along, if a stuffed animal is too babyish at your child’s age.

Practice. Schedule some short trips for your child. The kids might spend a few nights with grandparents or friends if they haven’t already. This lets them practice being away and coping, and offers a reference point for managing their anxiety. Then it will be more credible when you say, “I know you can do it, because you were homesick but got through it at Grandma’s.” These nights away also might be a good opportunity to practice being less digitally connected to your child.

Plan. Together, make a plan for what can help once they actually get to camp. Have them make a list of advice they would offer a homesick friend, and keep it for themselves in their journals. It gives kids a sense of mastery to feel like they could help a friend who is homesick (and gives them a ready-made excuse if someone finds their coping list).

Stay busy. I asked a few kids in my practice for their advice. Most reported the hardest and loneliest parts of the day are the quiet times in the afternoon and before bed. Suggest some activities that can help them fill the idle time. One boy I work with who just got back from a school trip was relieved at how busy they were all day, so that he could fall right asleep without time to get homesick or anxious. And being with other kids can help a lot, even when they would prefer to be alone. I try to remind kids that spending time with the other, unfamiliar kids may not sound like fun when you are feeling homesick, but it is like taking medicine: It will help you feel better for the rest of the day.

Some other ways to fill downtime are to reread an encouraging letter from home, or review a list you made filled with memories of times they stuck things out and got through challenges. Making a gratitude list, or writing a letter of what they are enjoying that day or what they look forward to next, is a good way to pass the time positively. And some kids find a short mindfulness practice, such as deep breaths or listening to sounds, can help them get through challenging moments. A kid-friendly mindful calming breath — breathing in through your nose like you are smelling a mug of hot chocolate, and breathing out through your mouth as if you are gently blowing to cool it off — for five or 10 breaths until the anxiety passes can also help.

And some help for parents

When you talk to your child about their worries, bear in mind that our concerns for them may be different from their fears — we may worry about friendships or bullying, but their fears are more basic: The mildewy cabin smells weird, the food tastes funny, or their sleeping bag is scratchy. Maybe they don’t like having to use the bathroom or shower with other kids nearby. Ask about all the worries they might have. Some may seem small to us, but they are big to their little minds.

You can use the drive up together to review plans, and once you get there, if your children aren’t too old to be mortified by it, meet and introduce yourself to the counselors and other kids. This demonstrates to your child that you trust the people at camp, and that they can trust them, too.

It’s important to resist the temptation to make deals or offer rewards in advance for going to camp or sticking it out, but do show them how proud you are when they make it through. And try to resist the urge to give in or let them give up. Camp really can build independence, grit, character and all those things that the websites and glossy brochures promise — but only if we let our kids be uncomfortable, feel the homesickness and experience the pride and accomplishment that comes with sticking it out.

Finally, be aware of how much you show your anxiety. The more anxious you appear, the more anxious they will get. We often forget that kids worry about making their parents unhappy. When we tell children, “I just want you to be happy,” they can feel like they are letting us down if they have an unhappy moment here or there, worsening the pain of homesickness. The best thing to share is your own adventures with homesickness, whether it was at camp, college, or somewhere else, and how you overcame it.

In the end, sleep-away camp isn’t for everyone, or the camp itself might not be the right one, but lessons can still be drawn from the experience as you discuss it on that long ride home.

Christopher Willard is a clinical psychologist and consultant. He teaches at Harvard Medical School and Lesley University, and is the author ofGrowing Up Mindful: Essential Practices to Help Children, Teens, and Families Find Balance, Calm, and Resilience (June 2016). You can find him on Twitter at @drchriswillard.