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ROAD & TRAVEL Travel Advice: Advice for Homesick Kids at Summer Camp

How to Cope When Your Child is Homesick at Summer Camp

Summer is fast approaching and many kids are busy packing their suitcases for the annual pilgrimage to summer camp. At the same time, many parents are preparing for the usual bout of homesickness that kicks in a short while after children have been seperated from their families and homes.

Just in time, a new report released by the journal Pediatrics, gives parents specific guidance to help anticipate and lessen the distress that homesick-ness can cause among kids and teens at summer camps. (The report''s authors are clinical psychologist and a University of Michigan physician who specializes in camp health issues. They're also old friends who first met at summer camp more than 25 years ago!)

"For over 100 years camps and schools have patted homesick kids on the back, tried to keep them busy and hoped it will go away," says lead author Christopher Thurber, Ph.D., psychologist at Philips Exeter Academy, and author of a camp handbook for parents. "But research shows that it's healthier, and more effective to think about prevention. This report aims to get the message to parents and those who are taking care of kids before they go to camp."

One of the basic tips for parents and doctors is to talk to kids ahead of any separation.

"What parents say [...] beforehand matters, and is very important for the intensity of homesickness," says Edward Walton, M.D., a U-M Health System assistant professor.

One of the most important things for parents and doctors to recognize, and to say to kids before any separation, is that it's normal, not strange, to feel homesick. In fact, research has shown that 90 percent of children attending summer camp feel some levels of homesickness and that 20 percent face a serious level of distress that — if untreated — worsens over time and interferes with their ability to benefit from a camp experience.

Thurber's recent research compared the effectiveness of key preparation tools to camps' standard preparation. The results showed that a combination of coaching parents and educating children about effective coping actually lowered the intensity of first-year campers' homesickness by 50 percent, on average. 

For the one million children who go away to school or the 12 million who attend residential (overnight) camp each year, homesickness can get in the way of the important character-building lessons that these experiences bring.

To help your children adapt to camp easily use these tips:

  • Involve children in the decision to spend time away from home, so that children have a sense of control.

  • Tell children that homesickness is normal, but that they can use strategies like writing letters home, sharing their feelings with other people, and thinking about all the good things that camp or school is giving them, to help ease their worry.

  • Arrange for a practice time away from home, such as a two- or three-day stay with relatives. If a child has reached high school without having gone to summer camp or more than a night away from home, this is especially important to prepare them for college or independent life.

  • Practice writing letters, and supply pre-stamped, pre-addressed envelopes before the child leaves home.

  • Work with the child to learn about the camp, school, or hospital ahead of time, so they know what to anticipate.

  • If possible, try to introduce kids to other campers, counselors or teachers ahead of time. A familiar face can make all the difference.

  • Encourage kids to make friends with others and seek out trusted adults to connect to.

  • Before the separation, don't make comments that express anxiety about the child going away. Even "I hope you'll be okay" or "what will I do without you" can leave a child worried that something bad might happen to them or their parents, and make them preoccupied with thoughts of home.

  • Use a calendar to show exactly the amount of time a child will be away, if that's known. Predictability and perspective on the length of separation is important whenever possible.

  • Don't make a "pick up plan" or a deal with a child to bring he or she home if they don't like the experience of being away. This undermines the child's sense that their parents have confidence in their ability to be on their own, and set an expectation that they won't like the new experience.

  • Warn children against keeping feelings of homesickness to themselves, doing something "bad" in order to get sent home or trying to escape.

  • If your child takes medicine for attention, behavior or psychological conditions, don't use camp as an excuse to take a "drug holiday." Make sure that they, and the camp's nurse or counselors, know their medication schedule and the importance of sticking to it.

  • If your child has special medical needs, such as diabetes or asthma, make sure that the camp or school they'll be going to has staff who knows how to handle day-to-day care and emergencies. Parents who have managed their child's care intensely can have an extra hard time giving up that control, and children can sense that anxiety.

  • Above all, know whether your child is really ready for a separation. If you're not sure, ask their doctor – but not while the child can hear the conversation.

All in all, summer camp and other separations from home can be great "life training" experiences for children, building their independence and teaching self-reliance and social skills that they'll use throughout life, says Walton and Thurber, who met when they were boys at the YMCA's Camp Belknap on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, and worked there together this past summer.

Resources for Parents

Homesickness prevention information and
The Summer Camp Handbook
, by Christopher Thurber

American Camp Association Online Resource for Families
American Camp Association Camp Locator

American Academy of Pediatrics

ACA now publishes a DVD-CD set "The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success" that makes these evidence-based homesickness prevention strategies publicly available for the first time. It also makes information available to parents online, as part of its effort to preserve, promote and enhance the camp experience for children and adults. ACA is also the only national organization that accredits camps, who must meet up to 300 health and safety standards to gain accreditation through the ACA.

(Source: American Camp Association)

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