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By Sloan Alday, PhD, Bradley Hospital
Homesickness is a common concern for many parents and children when considering summer camp. With some thoughtful planning, however, homesickness should not be a significant problem for most children. Families can take steps before and during camp to minimize the negative impact of homesickness.
The average child is ready around the age of 9 or 10. Children who are younger, shy or have never spent the night away from home may not be ready for camp. If a child clearly states no interest in attending camp, s/he is not ready. A child's readiness for camp can not be judged by the age a sibling or peer was ready for camp. Some younger children enjoy camp if they have an older sibling, friend, or relative with them.
The camp experience can be maximized by involving children in every aspect of preparation, such as:
Explain to your child that homesickness is a normal feeling that everyone experiences. Tell them you understand, but you are confident that they can work through it. Coping with homesickness is an important skill for success not only for camp but later when they go away to college or move away for jobs. Try to avoid making the promise that you will come get them if it doesn't work out; this gives the message that you do not have confidence in their ability to cope.
Try the following strategies during practice time away from home so that your child will know which ones work for them:
Parents may wish to mail a letter to their child ahead of time so that it is waiting for them when they get there. On the first day of camp, make sure you arrive for drop-off according to camp guidelines. Help your child get settled and help them meet their counselor and other important adults. Stay cheerful and positive. Talk about how much fun they will have and how quickly the time will go by. Avoid anxiety-provoking statements, such as "How will I survive without you?" or, "I sure hope you can do this."
If your child calls you in tears, asking to come home, offer empathy. Explain that lots of people feel homesick and it means that there's something about home that they love, which is a wonderful thing. Offer encouragement; tell them they will feel better and have a great time. Finally, remind them of the coping skills you have discussed.
Try to instill a sense of confidence and control. Assure them that they are in control of how they are feeling and they can make it better. Homesickness will pass, just like any other kinds of sickness, like having a cold. After hanging up, get in touch with camp staff and let them know your child is having trouble. Ask camp staff to provide some extra TLC, make sure your child stays involved, and facilitate some friendships.