Ready, Set, Camp!

Pack the sleeping bag and the bug spray and prepare your child emotionally for summer camp.

By Christopher Thurber, PhD
Nov 06, 2012



Nov 06, 2012

Summer camp seemed like a far-off fantasy just a few frosty months ago as you filled out your child's registration form. Now the excitement of campfires, swimming, archery, and talent shows is just around the corner.

If your child will be heading to overnight camp for the first time this summer, he may feel some anxiety about leaving home as the big day draws near. But even seasoned vets can get a case of the nerves. Here's how you can help ease your child's angst (and yours, too) while pumping up the enthusiasm.

Get Ready Together
Children who participate in preparing for camp enjoy their time away more than children who have it all done for them. So with that in mind, try to involve your child in as many of the decisions as you can as you get ready. If you're still trying to pick a camp from a short list, for example, avoid making the choice for her. Instead, choose one with her input so that she feels a sense of ownership.

When the time comes to shop for supplies, take your child along and let him make some of the choices. He can choose the color of his new footlocker or sleeping bag, for instance. At home, ask him to help you label clothing, load the batteries in his flashlight, and choose the books he might like to read during downtime (don't forget to consult that school summer reading list!).

Heading Off Homesickness
In my research, I found that 95 percent of boys and girls experience homesickness at some point while at camp. That may sound worrisome, but there is a silver lining: Many psychologists now believe that the longing children (and parents) sometimes feel when they're apart is evidence of the strength of the bond between them. Fortunately, you can take action to prevent severe homesickness by preparing your child with the following strategies:

  • Arrange for practice time away from home. Spending the weekend at a grandparent's house or a few days with a friend stimulates feelings of independence and gives kids confidence that they can cope with longer separations from home.
  • Discuss how letter writing will help the family stay connected. Kids love to receive letters at camp, primarily because it's reassuring to hear that everyone at home — parents, pets, and siblings — is doing fine.
  • Use a wall calendar to show the camp's opening and closing days so your child can see that camp does not last forever.
  • Send a letter to camp before opening day, so your child gets mail right away. If you like, send your first letter directly to your child's cabin leader for early delivery.
  • Discuss any recent stressful family events and provide reassurance to help vanquish the preoccupying thoughts of home that drive homesickness.

One Month to Go
At some point your child will ask the inevitable: "What if I feel homesick?" The best reply you can give is, "You probably will miss something about home while you're away, but I know you'll love camp." Avoid the dreaded mixed message called "The Pick-Up Deal." Telling your child, "If you feel homesick, I'll come get you" sets them up for failure. It's like saying, "I think the only solution to this normal feeling is for me to rescue you."

One Week to Go
As the big day nears, you can expect some anxious anticipation. Because every child wonders, "Will I make friends?" and "Will I like the food and activities?" it's important for you to stay relaxed and confident. Ask, "What do you think you'll like the most?" and "Won't it be fun to make new friends?" Soothe separation anxiety by gently reminding your child, "I'll be fine while you're at camp. There's lots to do around the house and at work. Plus, I'll be busy writing you letters and reading yours. Remember, camp only lasts for a few weeks, so you've got to take advantage of all the fun stuff while you're there. Before you know it, you'll be home again."

Opening Day
Once you arrive at camp (or at the camp bus stop), you can model good social skills by making good eye contact, introducing yourself to staff, asking questions, and sharing a little about yourself. Inform your child's cabin leader about any allergies, medications, or other conditions that will help the staff care for your child. After a warm goodbye, it will be time for you to hit the road. Remember, camp means you get to enjoy a well-deserved respite from full-time parenthood. And because you've prepared for camp thoughtfully, you can rest assured that your child is about to have the time of his life.

Social & Emotional Skills
Age 10
Age 9
Age 8
Feelings and Emotions
Separation Anxiety