Few things in life are more awesome than summer camp (ok, perhaps I’m a bit biased). Your son’s time at Camp Mowglis has the potential to substantially impact his life in remarkably positive ways. In addition to making lifelong friends and getting to do “cool stuff,” he’ll learn more about who he is. He’ll grow in his ability to communicate thoughts and ideas. He’ll learn how to be aware of and respond to others’ needs, more than just his own. He’ll become more attuned to the rhythm of the wild. Perhaps these are the reasons why you’re sending your son to camp.
While attending summer camp can be a truly remarkable experience, feeling homesick is something your son may very well experience. Homesickness is extremely common. Research in this area suggests that greater than 80% of kids attending residential camps report experiencing some level of homesickness during their time away from home. Importantly, there are things that can be done before camp to help prepare your child for possibly feeling homesick. But first, a little background on who I am:
My name is Dr. Chris Stoddard, and I have over 20 years of experience working with children and adolescents in camps, schools, and clinical settings. I am a licensed psychologist and school psychologist; my specialty is working with pre-teen and adolescent boys who may struggle with emotional and behavioral challenges. Since 2001, I have been involved with summer camps in many different capacities, from cabin counselor to head counselor to ropes course facilitator, to program coordinator. My wife and I met through summer camp nearly 20 years ago! We have a 10-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter, and we live about 20 minutes away from camp. Suffice it to say, I know camp, and I am invested in your son having an awesome summer!
In many ways, a successful summer experience for your son starts now. Here’s my Top 5 List for addressing homesickness before it starts:
- The decision to attend camp should be a mutually agreed-upon decision.
Compared with kids who want to come to camp, kids forced to go to camp are at exponentially greater risk of struggling with severe homesickness. Having what’s called “decision control” about camp significantly lowers the risk of homesickness.
- Talk about it.
Talking about homesickness does not make it more likely or more severe. In fact, I will be encouraging staff to check in regularly with campers about how homesick they are feeling. It’s hard to observe if a child is worrying about being away from home. Unless the behaviors are severe, it’s hard for camp staff to notice whether or not a camper is struggling with missing home. So, rather than waiting for your son to tell you he’s worried about camp, I encourage you to initiate conversations about things he might be worried about. From worries about missing home, to concerns about making new friends, to eating different foods, keeping the door open to talk about it all fosters positive coping. The key, here, is for your son to understand that it’s ok for him to feel a bit out-of-sorts at times while at camp; I guarantee you, he isn’t alone.
For those of you with a younger camper or a youngster who hasn’t spent much time away from home without you, I encourage you to schedule a couple sleep overs, camp outs, or visits to friends between now and when camp starts. And this doesn’t really have anything to do with age. A 12 year old who has experienced limited time away from home will have a harder time with homesickness than an 8 year old who has lots of experience. I’m not suggesting you send your son away for several weeks this spring, but providing him some short opportunities to learn what it feels like to be “away” for even a night or two will serve him well at camp.
- Don’t make pick-up deals
I know… as parents, we work hard to protect our children from discomfort and pain. We don’t want them to struggle. But kids learn so much about themselves when they persevere through a tough challenge. We don’t, however, leave them alone to struggle without the hope of help. Kids do best when we set a high expectation but also support them reaching that bar. High expectation + nurturing support = empathetic, resilient kids. So, if your son expresses unease about the summer, rather than making a deal to pick him up if he “can’t do it,” emphasize that he is capable, that he is not alone, and that you’re excited for him to have such an awesome time!
- Nurture him
It’s a hard and strange time to be a kid. And I almost guarantee that your son is or has experienced some form of recent worries, fears, and frustrations. A significant factor impacting homesickness is how someone copes with strong emotions. A strange and nearly-automatic tendency to expect boys to “suck it up” permeates American culture. As you’re probably aware, boys tend to express their emotions differently than girls. Whereas girls are quicker to express their thoughts and feelings verbally, boys display their internal feelings to us through their behavior. Unfortunately, boys’ behavior has the tendency to elicit the opposite reaction from us than what they need. So, if he lashes out, see it as an indication that he’s stuck. Rather than forcing him to talk it out, rather than reacting to his behaviors with punishment, draw close. If you can, model for him what it looks like to cope with big feelings. Without words, just be near. In so doing, you psychologically hold him while creating safety that allows him to talk when he’s ready.
I’m excited to support the Camp Mowglis staff this summer as they provide a stellar summer for your boy. My role at Camp has two components: First, I will be contributing to staff training prior to camp starting. Second, I will be at camp one day per week throughout the summer to provide staff consultation as well as support to campers that might need it and/or request it. And if you have specific questions about homesickness or would like to speak with me directly, feel free to contact Nick Robbins, and he’ll provide you with my contact information.