When children leave home for sleepaway camp, sometimes it's the parents who struggle with separation anxiety. Here, the experts at the American Camp Association of New York and New Jersey offer tips for how to cope.
Going to summer camp is often a child's first step towards independence. The experience is a great way for children to develop self-reliance in a nurturing, safe, and supportive environment created just for them. While it's exciting for the child, parents often experience anxiety about letting their kids go to camp and navigate without them.
Rossana De Stefano, mom of five including 12-year-old John-Luke (whose experience, described in his personal essay, is representative of many first-time campers), remembers: "While dropping John-Luke off at camp my separation anxiety was at an all time high. As I watched the other moms kissing their kids goodbye I felt the tears welling up in my eyes. But I knew that I had to be strong for both of us."
Children need to learn how to find their way through situations on their own, to learn to make decisions and problem-solve, independently of their parents. Only then will they be able to properly develop the confidence to become self-reliant adults.
Although John-Luke's camp experience was ultimately empowering for him, his parents didn't know it would turn out that way when they were saying goodbye. "Luckily," recalls De Stefano, "my husband quickly put me in the car. Needless to say, it was a long ride home. So many thoughts were running through my head: Would he be able to sleep? Would he eat? Would he be happy? I so wanted him to have a great experience."
The American Camp Association of New York and New Jersey offers some tips that will help ease your concerns:
Talk to the camp director. When you are choosing a camp, ask questions and get to know him or her. Ask about the camp's philosophy and how the staff implements it. Make sure the philosophy reflects your own families' value system. Find out about the camp director's background and the staff training, the age of the counselors, and the counselor to camper ratio. Learning about the program will ease some anxieties parentsmay have.
Keep in mind that camp directors have your child's best interests in mind and the skill to guide your child towards an appropriate level of independence, self-confidence, and success.
"By participating in an organized schedule of exciting activities each day at camp, your child will develop new skills, build self-esteem, and gain confidence for future success," says Bob Budah, owner and director of Park Shore Country Day Camp in Dix Hills, NY. "Your child will also make lifelong friendships and create magical memories."
Remember that kids often get over the adjustment to a new environment before parents get used to the next stage of development. While your child is adjusting to camp, don't make pick-up deals and offer to rescue your child. Instead, offer positive encouragement that you know he or she will have a successful summer. "It is important for parents not to transfer any of their own anxieties to their children, creating unnecessary stress for the camper. If parents have worries, they should speak privately with the directors," says David Fleischner, owner and director of Camp Scatico, a Brother-Sister resident camp in the upper Hudson Valley.
Don't focus too much on correspondence from camp in the first few days your child is away. If you receive a discouraging phone call or a letter from your camper, remember that like any new experience, adjusting to camp may take a few days and that severe homesickness is rare. Remind your child of all the wonderful aspects of camp. "In every letter that I wrote to my son, I always encouraged him to try new things and always told him how proud we all were of him," says De Stefano.
When your child is at camp, allow him to solve his own problems or ask a counselor for help. Camp is a setting that allows your child to experience the real world in a safe environment. Kids learn quickly to rely upon themselves and the camp staff they trust at camp instead of their parents. And "the more parents feel that their children are ready for the sleepaway experience, the less anxious they'll feel," notes Fleischner. "So make sure they've slept away from home successfully, either at a grandparent, cousin, or friends' home."
"Allowing your child to take healthy risks in a nurturing environment is one of the greatest things you can do for your child," says Adam Weinstein, executive director of the American Camp Association of New York and New Jersey. "Parents who did their research and asked questions when searching for a camp will feel more comfortable when camp begins and be thrilled to watch how their child thrives in the camp community."
To find the right camp for your child, visit the American Camp Association (ACA) of New York and New Jersey's camp database (www.campwizard.org), or call (800) 777-CAMP to speak with a specialist for free, one-on-one advice. ACA-accreditation ensures that children are provided with a diversity of educational and developmentally challenging learning opportunities in a safe environment.
Also see: From Homesick to Home Away from Home: One Boy's Tale of Overcoming His Homesickness at Sleepaway Camp
How Parents Can Deal with Young Children's Separation Anxiety: Advice from the Experts