Day Camp Distress
The parent's story: It happened last year between school and camp, and now it's happening again. Tyler, our 5 year old, is having bad dreams and seems anxious and fidgety.
A year ago, Tyler couldn't tell me what the bad dreams were about. This summer, he describes his dreams vividly. "I couldn't find our house," he says. "The street looked funny; I didn't know which way to go or who to ask." On some nights, it seems that the dreams are about getting lost at camp or school. He describes being alone in a big new building with lots of stairs (his school has lots of stairs); and he can't find his teacher.
I know that many kids get upset about starting school, but it seems that Tyler struggles with leaving school and starting summer camp. Each morning he boards the camp van at 8:30 and is back by 3:00 — the longest day away from home he's ever had. Tyler will go back to preschool for another year, but the following year he'll go to an all-day kindergarten. I thought the full day of fun at sports camp might help prepare him for the longer school day. But, so far, Tyler's not having fun. These nightmares and his jittery mood make that clear. His counselor has been very patient and kind. But I'm still worried. How can I help ease the transition from Tyler's familiar school day to the summer schedule?
The counselor's story: Tyler is a darling boy and quite good at sports for his age. But I know he hasn't enjoyed this first week. He's alternately anxious and sleepy, sometimes both. His mom tells me he's been having bad dreams since school ended.
Many parents don't realize that while camp is full of fun, it can take time to get used to the new place. And believe it or not, because our program serves a wide age range, it's much more structured than most preschool and kindergarten programs. Each activity lasts 50 minutes, and on rainy days, we have more indoor activities and maybe show a movie for several age groups at a time. The kids can't really linger over something they enjoy or leave an activity that doesn't appeal to them. Also, they may not be with the same children throughout the day. Then too, Tyler travels in the van, unless one of his parents is able to drive him on a particular day. The children he travels with are not in his group; they just happen to live on the same route from home to camp and back.
So for Tyler, there's a lot that's new and unfamiliar. No wonder he sometimes seems adrift, eats very little, and rests very little after lunch. He seems happiest when one of his parents picks him up. It appears that piling onto that van with a noisy bunch of older kids is not something he looks forward to doing. I guess I need to work with the parents to help them understand all of this and reassure them that Tyler will eventually be okay.
Dr. Brodkin says: Any one of the unfamiliar situations Tyler now finds himself in would be a challenge for a sensitive 5 year old — it's no wonder he's been uneasy, both awake and asleep. Camp is all new to him — the place, activities, children, and adults. The van rides surely make the day more challenging. It's even possible that some of the movies camps show on rainy days can be scary to a young child. Lassie in danger or Bambi after his mother is shot can be all too real for a child alone in a new setting. All of these experiences offer wonderful opportunities, but too many new ones at once can overwhelm a young child.
- What Tyler's parents can do: If we could hit "rewind" and start Tyler's summer all over again, we might want to make the changes fewer and more gradual. He's a child who, happily, is very comfortable in school and attached to the people there. Reminding Tyler that he will return to that happy place again for another fun year could help to reassure him. Just as a visit to a classroom before starting school can be reassuring, having a gradual introduction to camp could do the same. While camp is already underway, it's not too late for parents to meet with the camp directors. The directors or counselors would do well to share their enthusiasm for camp and answer any questions Tyler or the family might have. It may also be easier for Tyler to adapt to camp if one of his parents drops him off and picks him up. Maybe this summer isn't the time to use the camp van, unless a close friend is along for the rides. It might also help if a parent were welcome to stay and observe camp for a day or two, just as parents do in many preschools. It would be wonderful, too, if one or two children Tyler knows and feels comfortable with were in the group. Get-togethers with other campers, old friends or new, can be helpful, too.
- What the counselor can do: The fact that the counselor plans to chat with the parents and reassure them as well as Tyler bodes well. Welcoming a parent to watch from the sidelines can be a big help, too. The counselor might also guide Tyler toward a compatible buddy for each of the activities. She should nurture any budding friendships and inform the parents of them so that they can follow up with weekend play-dates. The counselor should be on the lookout for Tyler's interests, talents, and skills. Rewarding him with praise and encouragement will likely win him over. Give him extra pointers about his baseball swing, and cheer even for a blooper hit or lucky catch. Get to know Tyler's tastes in food as well as the names of his pets and siblings. Welcome him warmly every morning and give him a compliment on his way out the door. "Great camp day, Tyler!" can go a long way toward starting the next day on a pleasant note.