How to Handle Homesick Kids at Camp
Help ease the homesick blues (without bringing them home).
Being away from home and loved ones causes feelings of homesickness in almost everyone. As many as 95 percent of kids experience mild sadness, and some feel intense, long-lasting distress. “It’s important to differentiate between adjustment anxieties that tend to diminish as kids get accustomed to new places, people and routines, and deeper feelings of disconnection and depression that grow worse over time,” says Erika Myers, M.Ed., LPC, a therapist and former boarding school teacher in Asheville, NC. Younger kids and those who have never spent time away from home have the most trouble at camp.
You may be worried that your attempts to comfort your homesick child will only make the problem worse. Here’s how to support your camper while she explores the world on her own.
Give kids control.
Studies show kids who choose go to camp are much less likely to feel homesick than kids who are forced to go because parents push. It’s best to let your child choose if, when and where she goes to camp. She should also decide what to bring and plan which activities she’ll do. Making decisions reminds kids they are capable and independent.
Set optimistic expectations.
Kids need to know it is okay to think about home and to miss their parents, pets, toys and favorite foods. Explain that there will be a period of transition, but don’t be discouraging. Attitudes about separation can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If your child believes he can’t cope with camp, he won’t. Be realistic and upbeat.
Give your child time to navigate new situations without interference from home. “Kids need time and space to get immersed in the camp setting,” says Myers. Send a quick daily email or note that inspires your child to try new activities. Ask about her bunkmates and counselor. Keep at-home happenings on the down low so your child doesn’t miss what she’s missing even more.
Manage your own anxieties.
You may be worried about your child’s ability to make friends and fit in. “Keep your concerns to yourself. Kids look to parents for their sense of self and safety,” says Frank Sileo, Ph.D., a Ridgewood, NJ, psychologist and author of Bug Bites and Campfires: A Story for Kids about Homesickness. Talk with camp staff or other parents to quell your worries instead of passing them on to your child.
There is a lot going on at summer camp and “staying busy is the best way to get through the initial adjustment. Down time will allow your child to dwell on thoughts of home and that will make him feel worse,” says Sileo. Get a list of camp activities and help your kid craft a plan of attack. The best defense against homesickness is a full calendar.
Stay in touch.
Check in at regular intervals. “Setting up a ritual, perhaps a brief phone call or email at a specific time of day can give your child a sense of security and consistency,” says Myers. Most camps have rules about contacting campers, so find out what your child’s camp suggests. Send a care package with treats and toys to let your camper know you’re thinking about him. Include items to share with cabin-mates. A book of Mad Libs, riddles or ghost stories makes bedtime fun for everyone.
Ask kids to write home.
The process of putting thoughts on paper and mailing them away is cathartic. Send stationery and stamps so your child can handwrite letters to friends, parents,and grandparents. Writing lets kids explore and express their feelings. Save kids’ letters to include in a summer camp scrapbook or memory box.
Don’t rush to the rescue.
If you receive homesick letters or phone calls, express your confidence that your child can get through it. Offering to pick him up will only validate his sense of helplessness, says Sileo. Identify an adult your child can talk to, such as a counselor or the camp nurse. Staff members are trained to handle homesickness and they’ll let you know if your child really needs to come home.
While your child is away, plan a post-camp surprise party to welcome her back. Warm, loving parents give kids a firm foundation for big adventures at camp and beyond.
Tangible reminders of people and pets keep kids connected to home and family. Pack these items to comfort your camper.
- Photos of family members and pets
- A favorite blanket or pillow
- A stuffed animal or small toy
- A journal or scrapbook
- Dad’s t-shirt to sleep in
- Favorite snack foods