Advice for pre-camp jitters

Melissa Erickson
This article appears in Summer Camp magazine 2019.

While some kids may feel pure excitement about heading off to summer camp, most combine those emotions with a bit of nervousness, too.

“The nerves are normal when kids are dealing with the transition from home to camp,” said Corey Dockswell, director of Camp Wicosuta, a traditional four-week sleepaway camp for girls in Hebron, New Hampshire. “The most important thing to share with your child is that they shouldn’t worry about the fact that they are feeling nervous — it’s normal.”

“For children any step toward independence involves excitement, anticipation and nervousness. It’s completely normal,” agreed Michael Thompson, a supervising psychologist at Belmont Hill School in Belmont, Massachusetts, and author of “Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow.”

Homesick and happy

To alleviate anxiety about the upcoming separation, give your child some practice being away from you, for example through sleepovers, Thompson said. Additionally, give him some role in the decision-making about which camp he will attend, he said.

Research has shown that about 80 percent of children who go to summer camp will experience some sort of mild homesickness, Thompson said.

“Many parents don’t realize it’s possible (for summer campers) to be both homesick and happy. A child can miss home, maybe cry a little bit before going to bed, but be able to wake up happy and take part in camp life,” Thompson said.

Take your cues from your child when talking about camp before it happens, and don’t project your own concerns onto your child, Dockswell said. If you have concerns as a parent, reach out to the camp director.

“Parents know their kid’s pressure points,” Dockswell said.

If a child is a picky eater or has a difficult time falling asleep on his own, ask the camp director how to help smooth the transition.

“What can you share about the routine at camp that will help make my child feel better?” Dockswell said to ask.

How to handle nerves

Simply asking questions about camp, such as who will be their bunkmate or will they get their first choice of activities, doesn’t mean children are feeling anxious or scared, Dockswell said.

“Respond to the question your child is asking, but avoid suggesting things you might be concerned about,” he said.

While a parent wants a child to be prepared in case something goes wrong, it’s not helpful to talk about all the things that could go wrong, Dockswell said.

“That could cause a child who is fine to become nervous about camp,” he said.

Never promise that you will come get a child if she is not enjoying herself, Thompson said.

“Don’t say, ‘If it’s scary, I’ll come get you.’ Coming to the rescue is not good parenting,” he said.

Instead, assure children that they will be OK and talk about what coping skills they can use while at camp, Thompson said. Ask them if they become anxious or nervous, what will they do? Whom will they talk to?

“Mentally practice how they will handle it,” Thompson said.