How to Prepare Your Child for Summer Camp
Ease the stress and separation anxiety (including your own) with these expert tips
Summer camp brochures are packed with pictures of smiling children with sun-kissed faces engaged in exciting activities like kayaking or hiking. These perfectly timed portraits show lifelong friendships in the making and budding independence. They make going off to camp look easy.
What the pictures don’t show — but parents know — is that many kids struggle with separation anxiety on drop-off day or the days or weeks leading up to it.
Going away to camp, especially for the first time, can be scary. The fear may be greater for some children than others. According to figures from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), anxiety disorders affect eight percent of kids. And a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry concluded that preadolescents and adolescent girls report high levels of social phobia and separation anxiety. (Teens in general report high levels of social phobia.)
The bottom line: “Parents can expect some separation stress and/or anxiety when children leave home for sleep-away camp,” says Andrea Nair, MA, CCC, psychotherapist and parenting educator.
An important way for parents to help is to show confidence in their child’s ability to thrive at camp, says Nair. Pointing out specific areas of independence reminds kids that they know what they’re doing.
Also try these strategies to help prepare your child for a fun and safe sleep-away camp experience.
Listen to concerns. All kids have different worries. Simply saying, “you’ll be fine when you get there” doesn’t actually help a worrier. Often, children need to feel heard and understood. Empathy is a game-changer when it comes to calming anxious kids.
“Empathize with your child’s feelings and talk about how to manage those emotions,” suggests Nair. “Communicate your understanding with an empathic response like, ‘I will be sad to be away from you, too, so let’s think of some ways to help when we are missing each other,’ and follow it up with specific ideas.”
Create a coping kit. Kids need easy-to-use strategies to self-soothe when they feel anxious. They also need to practice using these strategies before they leave home so they can figure out what works best.
Talk with your child to find out what appeals to her, but consider a few of these:
- A new journal with fancy pens
- A stress ball
- Laminated notes saying, “just breathe,” “think happy thoughts” and “mom and dad love you”
- A photo flip book full of pictures of close friends and family
Make communication easy. Many kids worry about when and how they will contact their parents during their time away. Feeling disconnected can trigger stress and anxiety. Take the guesswork out of communication by preparing in advance. Find out the camp phone call schedule and print it out for your child to post near his bed. Pack stationary, envelopes, stamps and an address book to write letters to family and close friends.
Role-play concerns. Practice makes proficient! Role-play how to cope with specific worries like making a new friend, adjusting to a new sleep schedule, asking for help and even riding a horse or trying a new activity.
Identify the helpers. Kids need to know where to turn when the going gets tough. We all have bad days once in a while, and it’s reasonable to expect that your child will have some lonely moments at camp.
Make sure your child understands that counselors are there to support the kids, not just to supervise. Identify at least two helpers your child can lean on should he have a difficult day.
Keep your own anxiety in check. Separation anxiety isn’t just for kids. Many parents struggle to let go, and kids take their cues from their parents. “Lingering can stir up emotions that might make it hard for your child to separate,” warns Nair. “If you and your child feel comfortable and confident that the program has supportive staff and is a great place to be, say goodbye and walk away.”