If you send your child to sleep-away camp, especially for the first time, don’t be surprised if after several days you get a call/email from your neophyte camper demanding that you bring him/her home immediately, that you made a terrible mistake inflicting camp on a child who hates camping, and that you are a bad, inconsiderate parent who enjoys making your child miserable. About 80% of children away from home, especially for the first time, whether in camp, on study programs, or visiting grandparents, experience at least some homesickness.
Here is what you should know:
1. Homesickness is neither new, unusual nor limited to children. (Not that this will help you or your camper feel better.) According to Wikipedia, homesickness is mentioned in the Old Testament (Exodus: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”) and in Homer’s Odyssey, whose opening scene features Athena arguing with Zeus to bring Odysseus home…because he is homesick (“…longing for his wife and his homecoming…”).
2. Start preparing kids for “awayness” months before camp time. Arrange sleepovers. Have relatives take them for a weekend. If kids are reluctant, start with all day “aways” from early morning to late evening. This helps build self-confidence. If possible, arrange for a friend of your child to go to the same camp. Previous day camp experience may also help.
3. Acquaint kids with the camp that he/she will attend. Talk about it frequently. Arrange visits, if possible. Some camps have videos. Check with the camp director if there is someone who lives near you who has been to that camp or is going to go.
4. Choose a camp that emphasizes your child’s interests. Go over the program. Explain that children can choose activities they enjoy, whether its basketball, arts and crafts, computers, or theater, for example.
5. Have you child participate in preparing for camp. Discuss the list of items that campers are expected to bring, have them accompany you to buy them, and let them choose colors of apparel. Emphasize “fun items” such as flashlights or swimsuits, for example. Let them help attach names to clothing and choose a favorite blanket, toy or doll to take along.
6. Make your child aware of the camp’s policy on communication with parents. Depending on how you look at it, policies are draconian and prison-like, or well thought out psychologically. Generally, campers are severely limited in staying in touch: no cell phones, limited emailing/telephone calls, and few or no visiting days. This helps build self-reliance and helps minimize homesickness, say camp directors.
7. Reassure your camper that you will be all right in their absence. Some children worry that parents will become ill or possibly die in their absence and will be unable to pick them up when camp ends. Without dwelling on the subject tell them that you will be OK, what you will be doing in their absence, and that you will be eagerly awaiting their return.
8. Inform your child about homesickness. Explain that feeling sad about being away is normal, that it shows that you care about the people, pets, and possessions you miss. Explain that coping on one’s own is important as you get older, and like school, not always fun, but essential.
9. Stand firm if you get an SOS call/email. Remain calm. The vast majority of campers greatly exaggerate their distress and cleverly play on your emotions (“if you really loved me, you wouldn’t make me stay here”). But don’t minimize their distress. They need reassurance that you miss them too, and that they will feel better in a day or two. Bribing – “I’ll get you the cell phone or PlayStation you want if you stay” is counterproductive. It does not make them feel better. And they don’t care that there is nothing for them to do at home or that you have to go to work or that you will lose the money you paid for camp.
10. Ask the camp director for his or her take on your child. Generally kids who place SOS calls need and benefit from camp the most; they are slower to make friends and take longer to get involved in activities. Severe homesickness is rare. Such signs include: frequent crying, keeping to themselves, not participating in activities, having a negative attitude, making frequent visits to the nurse, and eating and sleeping poorly. These are signs of depression and should not be entirely ignored. Yet experience show that the vast majority of such campers get over severe homesickness in a day or two, and go on to enjoy camp. Only about one percent of campers leave camp early. Should it happen, don’t make your child feel like a failure. Focus on the positive. Encourage him/her to try again next year.