Is your child anxious about the upcoming summer at camp? Summer camp should be a fun experience for kids. For children whose anxiety gets in the way, NYC’s Child Mind Institute offers suggestions on how to clear the fear to make way for a more formative experience.
Anxiety - Behind the Scenes
Portraits of summer camp showcase sun-splashed children playing sports, swimming, and getting freckles. Not pictured is any sign of anxiety, a natural reaction to a new adventure and a several-week separation. All children experience a mixture of excitement and nervousness when summer camp approaches. For most, excitement trumps nerves, but some children develop anxiety serious enough to get in the way of what should be a fun, formative experience.
Summer camps hone many skills useful for future success: resilience, self-reliance, and social adaptability. The camp experience—being away from home among peers as much as crafts, sports, and theater—can aid a child in crucial socialization and in completing necessary developmental tasks, which include separating from parents, cultivating independence, and demonstrating mastery. Children are often ready for sleep-away camp around ages 10-12, although preparedness varies depending upon age, experience, and temperament.
How do you know if your child’s case of pre-camp nerves is in the typical range, or something problematic? You might be concerned if she demonstrates physical symptoms of fear: cold or clammy hands, butterflies, faintness, headache, or nausea. Excessive tearfulness and hiding are also signs that something out-of-the-ordinary is going on. A child might have nightmares about separation, or ask questions like, “What if something happens to me or you when I’m away?” If a child’s reaction is so severe that it interferes with normal functioning, it might be time to consult a mental health professional. Otherwise, the key to helping your child get over anxiety is to acknowledge it—and give her tools to help her tame it.
13 Tips for Taming the Anxiety
1. Let your child feel a sense of ownership over the experience. Involve him in picking the summer camp; familiarize him with the camp environment and teach him about camp activities so he can formulate expectations.
2. Help your child get excited about camp: Take her shopping for new gear and focus her on fun things about camp that she can anticipate.
3. Avoid focusing on what makes children anxious. Instead of asking leading questions such as, “Are you nervous about horseback riding?” ask open-ended questions like, “How are you feeling about the horses?”
4. Don’t trivialize her concerns or offer glib reassurances. Constantly insisting, “There’s nothing to worry about!” or, “Everyone loves camp!” may discourage your child. Show that you have empathy and acknowledge her concerns.
5. Focus on concrete details in conversations leading up to and during summer camp. Avoid abstract issues like what it it’s like to be away from home in favor of cabin details, meals in the lodge, or campfire rituals to keep their heads in the game.
6. Reflect on your own formative experiences away from home and share positive aspects of them with your child. Show that you are willing to talk about the new things he’ll be doing, whether it’s sharing a bathroom, getting along with cabin-mates, or choosing a partner at a square dance.
7. Go through “rehearsals.” A shorter-term sleepover or a night at Grandma’s will make it easier for your child to be away from home.
8. Don’t “linger at the bus stop.” Keep goodbyes short, as delaying just causes more mixed feelings.
9. Make communication easy and accessible. Pack envelopes and stamps, outline a schedule for phone calls or emails if they’re part of the camp’s routine, and make sure your child understands how easy staying in touch will be.
10. Have goals for each letter or conversation so your child will come away focused on how she is adjusting, rather than on how much she wants to come home.
11. Try not to communicate your own anxiety. Your child can pick up on your feelings even if you don’t verbalize them. What you want to share is your confidence in your child and the summer experience.
12. Help your child formulate realistic, goal-oriented plans for making friends or toasting the perfect marshmallow or passing a swimming test. The thrill of completing these plans can give your child a feeling of success and take his mind off his anxiety.
13. If your child has psychiatric or learning issues, don’t keep them a secret. Make sure the staff and counselors know anything they need to know to ward off problems and maximize your child’s experience. Does she wet the bed? Is she anxious about water? And let your child know that counselors are there to support her, whether she has a simple question or a larger problem.
Are you ready for your child to go to summer camp?
For parents who are anxious about sending kids to summer camp, remember that the cost of a good camp covers more than the arts and crafts. It includes a team of professionals and counselors committed to fostering social learning in your child.
Summer camp is that rare situation where your child engages with a large community of peers and learns how to interact socially in a less-structured environment than school. This is a time for him to actively make decisions for himself and develop a sense of self-reliance. Though you may be concerned and wish to intervene, an attitude of “back-up” supportiveness will give your child room to take ownership over the experience himself.
The Child Mind Institute is an NYC-based nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming mental health care for children everywhere. Visit childmind.org for a wealth of information related to your child with special needs, including strategies for dealing with a diagnosis and behavior, symptoms and signs, practical tools, videos, and more.