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Talking About Homesickness

FOR AGES: Six and up


THE SCENE

Ten-year-old Emma has something on her mind. Instead of eating, she pushes her food around listlessly. Finally it comes out. "Do I have to go to camp?" she says. "What if I get homesick?"

Going to overnight camp is a rite of passage for millions of children each summer. A well-run camp can provide kids with a marvelous experience, but most campers will still have homesick moments. It's not at all surprising that children leaving home for the first time might get pre-camp jitters.

The Words You Need

The Words: "Everyone gets nervous when they go to camp for the first time."

The Reason: It's helpful for children to know that they're not alone in their fears, and that what they're experiencing is normal.

The Words: "Can you tell me what worries you about camp?"

The Reason: Some children worry about missing family, friends, or even their pets. Others worry about making friends. Kids might worry about being teased for all sorts of reasons -- from sleeping with a stuffed animal to bed-wetting. Once you know children's specific concerns, you can help them come up with strategies for coping.

The Words: "I know you're worried now, but remember how excited you were when you decided to go? It seems like a great place for you."

The Reason: As you acknowledge your children's anxiety, help them try to put it in perspective. Looking through the camp brochure again and talking about what the camp has to offer can be reassuring.

The Words: "Camp might be hard at first, but it should get easier and more fun each day. Remember how it took some time to make friends when school first started?"

The Reason: When children face a challenge, it's important to acknowledge that they are doing something hard. Remind them of their specific strengths (i.e., a good sense of humor, compassion, or leadership qualities) that have helped them cope with new situations before.

The Words: "I can call the camp ahead of time and find out how they help kids who are homesick."

The Reason: Some children might feel better if they know ahead of time what resources are available for homesick campers. Even if your child isn't expressing concerns, it's still a good idea to talk with camp personnel. Finding out how a camp deals with this can give you a good sense of its attitude toward providing emotional support for campers.

The Words: "Let's talk about the things you can do in case you get homesick."

The Reason: You and your child can brainstorm about strategies for coping. A favorite counselor, other staff, or a good friend all can be supports and confidants for your kids. Keeping busy, writing letters to family and friends, and actively engaging in life at camp are good strategies, too. Some kids might want to bring pictures from home, a favorite stuffed animal, or a blanket to help them feel comforted and connected.

The Words: "I bet you'll have a great time. But if something happens that worries or upsets you, and you feel that you can't talk with a grownup at camp, write to me about it and I'll help you."

The Reason: You can still be a resource for your child even if you're separated. Encourage your child to use letter-writing as a way to stay in touch and to get support. Some parents mail notes or cards ahead of time so that their children receive them when mail is first distributed.

If you're leaving the country or are going to be inaccessible for some period of time, let your children know the details of where and when you're going and what adults will be available in your absence. Keep sending letters and postcards wherever you are!

The Words: "Maybe you can talk to friends who've been to camp about what they did when they were homesick."

The Reason: Talking to peers about strategies for coping can be useful. It's especially helpful to talk with kids who've been to the same camp -- not just about being homesick, but about their whole camp experience.

The Words: "I remember being homesick at first when I went to camp for the first time, but I ended up having a wonderful time."

The Reason: Talking honestly about your own experiences at camp is a good way to help children feel comfortable with the range of emotions, or ambivalence, they are feeling about leaving.

The Words: "Remember that I love you and care about you even when you're not with me."

The Reason: It's always important to remind children that they're loved and that being loved is something they carry with them wherever they go.

Beyond Words

Here are some suggestions for helping them make the transition successfully:

  • Often children going away for the first time feel better if they go to camp with a friend from home.

  • Upheaval at home, such as sickness, divorce, a new sibling, or an impending move, can make the transition to camp harder. In these cases, it's important to work with the camp staff to provide extra supports as they are needed.

  • Find out the camp policies on mail, phone calls, and visiting days for parents so that you can help your child prepare for the summer.

  • Children may become more clingy or irritable as their departure date approaches. It's helpful to give them extra cuddling or support as they need it.

  • Never tease a child about homesickness.

  • It's probably best to be accessible when your child goes off to camp for the first time. If a child is terribly homesick for a long period of time and wants to come home, some camps will call parents and arrange for the camper to leave. Knowing your child and talking to camp personnel will help you assess whether it's best for a child to stay or go.

    More on: Summer Camp

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