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by Sarah-Beth White

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Going to sleepaway camp for the first time can cause a serious case of the jitters — for both kids and parents. “It’s important for parents to realize these feelings are completely normal,” says Christopher Thurber, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and co-author of The Camp Handbook. “Separation anxiety is a normal reflection of a strong attachment.” If you’re suffering from a bad bout of the what-ifs, there’s good news — with proper information and planning, parents can overcome their stress. “It’s essential that parents evaluate their child’s readiness for camp,” says Linda Ebner Erceg, R.N., M.S., P.H.N., executive director of the Association of Camp Nurses. “A child’s behavior will give parents good indicators about how they will handle being away from home. Parents should take direct cues from their kids.” Do your kids bolt out of the car when they leave for school, or cling to you? Has your child spent any significant time away from home? Weekend school trips can reveal how children will react to being A survey conducted by the National Camp Association (NCA), a free public guidance and referral service, found that younger children (ages five to eight) tend to adapt more easily to a camp environment than older ones. Conversely, parents of younger children are more nervous about sending their child away. Dr. Thurber, whose book merges his clinical research on separation anxiety with 20 years of camp experience, suggests parents open lines of communication. “Unanswered questions are a major cause of parental anxiety,” he says. Talk directly with the camp administration about any concerns you might have. Discuss your worries with other parents who have sent their kids to camp. Brooklyn mom Gilda Mooney-Dube sent her three children, who are all on medication for ADD, to an established, mainstream camp in Vermont after consulting with a friend whose son suffers from juvenile diabetes. “I was confident the camp had reliable medical facilities,” she says. “I submitted all the information about their medication in writing.” It’s critical for parents to disclose all medical conditions and consult with their pediatricians before camp departure. A new environment might mean a change in medication. “Medication should be clearly labeled with precise instructions to ensure children will get it on a timely basis,” says Arthur Kozin, M.D., from West Nyack, who has spent the past five years as a camp physician in Massachusetts. “A doctor should also inform the parent before administering any new medications.” An older, responsible child may keep a rescue medication, such as an inhaler, with him at all times, but routinely scheduled medications are generally administered at the health center. Dr. Kozin recommends regular health check-ups to make sure kids are infection free and taking care of their personal hygiene. Discuss directly, with counselors, the need for vitamins, sunscreen or bug repellent. “Parents sometimes decide not to mention certain medical problems because they’re afraid a camp may reject them or that a child will be picked on,” says Jeffrey Solomon, executive director of the National Camp Association. “They need to ask themselves if their child will be comfortable at a camp that will not be accepting of their condition.” Bambi Everson, from Astoria, chose a special needs camp for her daughter, Sarah, who has been diagnosed as autistic. At age eight, Sarah was changing from a restricted special education program to a mainstream writing and art school. “I was very concerned about the transition,” says Everson. “Both Sarah and I needed to feel we could be independent from one another. When she left for camp I worried about her ability to handle a new social situation, but Sarah made friends quickly. She came home elated and with a new sense of confidence.” “While no camp can guarantee safety one hundred percent, parents should look for several key indicators,” says Linda Erceg. “These include such factors as: the ratio of children to administrators, the selection and training of staff, the quality of health care facilities and whether or not they have accreditation from the American Camp Association (ACA).” The ACA reviews camps every few years and maintains strict standards for accreditation. “Picking a camp is like picking a pair of shoes,” says Jeffrey Solomon, “You want to pick the right one — otherwise you end up with blisters.” Not all environments will be right for each child. While one of the benefits of camp is exposing your child to new things, Solomon does not recommend thrusting your child into a completely foreign environment in an effort to change them. The parent must strike a balance. If your child is not overly athletic, you might select a camp that doesn’t stress competitive sports. “Today there’s such a diversity of camps and camp philosophies that parents have wide choices,” Solomon says. “Even sports camps can vary widely in their level of competition.” Camps also employ different disciplinary styles. Parents must assess which environment is the right one for their child. It helps to let children share in the choice of camp. Linda Erceg advises looking for cues from your child. Does he join school clubs only with friends or because of an interest in the subject matter? If he is comfortable with friends only, perhaps his first camp experience should include someone he’s familiar with. “My kids were definitely comforted by the fact their siblings were there,” says Gilda Mooney-Dube. Keep in mind that your child’s idea of the perfect camp may not be yours. “My 8-year-old slept in a small tent all summer and thought it was the coolest thing ever,” continues Mooney- Dube. Surveys from the NCA indicate that introverted children benefit greatly from camp. “Many wallflowers have blossomed, built self-confidence and made new friends,” says Jeffrey Solomon. To ease homesickness Dr. Thurber suggests children play an integral part in the planning process. Make shopping together for camp supplies a fun outing. Erceg recommends role-playing to get your child in the camp spirit. Establish a camp schedule at home a few weeks before camp — eat at a precise hour, have kids make their beds and take care of their personal needs independently. Examine sleep rituals. Does your child need to listen to music before going to sleep? Find out if they can pack a disc player with headphones to listen to in bed. “Develop a plan to stay in touch,” says Dr. Thurber. Phone calls, which often elicit feelings of homesickness, are not allowed in most camps. Parents can get in touch directly with the administration to check up on things and many camps have fax or email facilities available. Unfortunately, a lot of today’s cyber-connected youth are seriously challenged by the old-fashioned notion of letter writing. If you share this problem, make it easy for them to send mail. Have them print some fun notes on the computer before they leave and provide them with pre-stamped envelopes. Remember, your child is anxious to hear from you, too. Letters or packages can be sent in advance or handed directly to the camp directors at drop-off time. It’s a wonderful feeling to receive mail the first few days away from home. “Parents should recognize that time spent away from their kids can be healthy for their relationship,” says Dr. Thurber. Don’t feel guilty. Plan special time with your spouse or younger siblings who may remain at home. “Your kids are having a wonderful time. You should too!” advises Dr. Thurber.

 


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