It’s Time for Summer Camp…and Separation Anxiety

For generations, sending kids to summer camp has been an American tradition. For a lot of youngsters, camp is what their parents hope it will be: namely, a blast! But for other children, camp is something to be unsure of…or downright terrified by.

The fact is, many children experience some degree of separation anxiety when they are away from their home and parents. Many eventually learn to deal with the absence of Mom and Dad without experiencing undue stress. However, assuming that your homesick child will “get over it” might be a false—and even dangerous—assumption to make. Trust me, I know from firsthand experience!

I dealt with separation anxiety throughout my childhood, and one instance in particular was nearly disastrous. When I was ten, my parents sent me to a sleepaway sports camp in a different state. They figured I’d enjoy it because my brother did and because I loved sports. Boy, were my mom and dad wrong despite their best intentions! The first night away from home I barely slept, and the next day I felt panicked and sick.

Soon, I was experiencing full-blown anxiety attacks (though I didn’t recognize them as such). My heart was pounding so hard I thought I was going to die. After seventy-two hours away, I was willing to do anything to get home…so I tried to drink some of the paint in the art shop to force my ticket home. Luckily a counselor caught me before I could really harm myself, and my parents were called to bring me home early.

While my story may seem “extreme,” my point is that to kids, anxiety and apprehension are real. Homesickness won’t necessarily go away on its own. So if your child is anxious about a separation, please take his or her concerns seriously. Here are a few facts and pieces of advice that you might find helpful if camp is in your child’s summer plans:

*First, gauge your child’s level of anxiety before making summer plans. According to my friend Dr. Howard J. Rankin (a licensed clinical psychologist), about one in twenty-five children suffers from Separation Anxiety Disorder. It goes beyond “normal” homesickness and can have long-lasting negative effects on your child’s development. Specifically, kids whose separation anxiety is severe may:

  • Worry that something might happen to you or other loved ones while you are separated
  • Suffer from nightmares
  • Manifest physical symptoms, such as a stomachache or a panic attack
  • Cling to you, especially in an “age-inappropriate” way
  • Refuse to go to a particular destination, such as school…or camp

If you suspect that your child might have Separation Anxiety Disorder, please seek the advice of a medical professional! As my story proves, sending a child who suffers from Separation Anxiety Disorder away may end up doing more harm than good.

Now, what about children who are nervous or apprehensive about leaving for camp, but who are not severely anxious? Here are a few things you can do to alleviate their worries and ease the transition:

*Talk it over with your child. Before signing up for any camp or away-from-home activity, talk to your child about it. Ask him how he’s feeling and what he thinks about these plans. Above all, be sure to acknowledge your child’s feelings as legitimate. Even if you don’t believe there’s any real reason for him to be upset, remember that his feelings and fears are very real in his own mind. It’s a good idea to let your child have some say in decision making—if he flat-out doesn’t want to go to camp, don’t force him! I repeat, do not force him!! You might also consider giving him a choice—day camp as opposed to sleepaway, for example.

*Stay calm and positive. If your prospective camper voices worries, acknowledge them, but don’t feed into them by adding your own apprehensions to the pile. (And certainly don’t bring up worrisome what-ifs yourself—for example, “I just don’t know how I’m going to make it a whole week without you here, Junior!”) Instead, focus on camp’s positive aspects. Remind your child of how much fun she’ll have and what she’ll learn. And don’t make a big deal out of the drop-off—if you get emotional, your child is more likely to lose control too. Lastly, if you do receive an upset phone call, email, or letter, don’t make a fuss that your child can feed off of. Instead, try to talk to a counselor or camp administrator about your child’s homesickness before making a decision regarding how to proceed.

*Feed your child’s interests. Sometimes homesickness can be sparked by boredom and unhappiness—so don’t assume that just because you enjoyed science camp in your youth, for example, your child will too. It’s always a good idea to make sure that any camp you’re considering for your child is a good fit for him. After all, if he’s happy and engaged, his attention is more likely to be focused on what’s right in front of him, and not on what he’s missing.

*Let your child take “home” with her. Your child may be traveling miles away, but there’s no reason why she needs to leave home behind altogether. Send familiar objects with her, such as a favorite stuffed animal, a small picture of you, a handwritten note, and/or phone numbers. She’ll feel less cut off from everything that’s familiar and will therefore be less likely to experience severe homesickness. It’s even better if she can go to camp with a friend from home.

Ultimately, I believe that there are very few children who won’t at least feel a twinge of homesickness when overnight camp—or any significant separation—rolls around. But if you approach the situation positively and rationally and encourage your child to do the same, you’ll both be better prepared for the separation—and you will be better equipped to determine if your child’s anxiety levels aren’t normal or healthy.

 

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