Sleep Away Camp Truths

(and what you can do about it)

Lessons from a parent, former camper and child psychologist

Everyone tells you that your child is fine and having the best time.  This may or may not be true and likely isn't always true, unless they are happy-go-lucky kids at home and school too.  Do they have ups and downs at home?  If so, that will happen at camp as well.  Accept that they can be having fun and still may get annoyed, frustrated, moody, obnoxious, angry, sad, or sullen on occasion.

If your camp posts pictures, you should know that some kids are photographed more than others.  Is it because they are more photogenic?  Perhaps they are happier or more popular? Or, now that I am in the know, is it because their parents are paying them to pose?  (I kid you not).  Resist panicking that the camp has misplaced your child if you don't see their smiling face.  Don't assume your child is miserable or off alone in the woods either.  And if you do see a pic of them, beware of overanalyzing it for extra clues.  It's just an instant in time.  If at all possible, do you best to avoid being a slave to picture browsing.  Your child is fine and having the best time (wink).

Your child is not eating as healthfully as you'd like or necessarily getting enough sleep.  Let it go.  Kids are resilient (until they are not).  I met some great friends in the infirmary over my ten years at sleep away camp.   Besides, there's no greater lesson to reinforce healthy habits then learning what unhealthy feels like.  Ask any child with a bellyache after eating too much candy or college student who has partied too hard - it's experience, not knowledge that teaches us to take better care of ourselves.  

Some of your child's bunkmates and peers are not nice.  Some can be down right obnoxious.  Others are kind, considerate, and if lucky, fun to be around.  (The same may be said of counselors, too). Friendships change quickly in camp.  One social week is as intense as months at home.  Your child has to learn to pick the right friends for him or her, and avoid or ignore that which is hurtful and unfair -- just like all of us.  It's terribly hard to witness or by privy to unkind or awkward social dynamics or your child's complaints.  Like so many things, it can consume your worries if you let it.  Instead, accept that your child can and does cope with or without you, and that the advice of counselors can go along way.  

Mistakes are necessary.  Your child will lose things, dress wrong for the weather, say or do something disgusting, get hurt, regret a behavior, not write enough letters or write to the relatives that are harassing you, enjoy your company as much as you'd hoped on visiting day or do something else they committed to doing at camp.   Give your child permission to make mistakes, fail and mess up at camp.  They likely worry about displeasing you in other environments.  Think of it as a gift and notice instead what they do right, their growth and efforts.  

Growth is inevitable (not just physical, and they do tend to grow like weeds away from your watchful eye). Your child will have no choice but to experience more independence than they ever would at home, get to know kids in unique ways spending day and night with a group of their peers, overhear their counselors interacting with each other and inadvertently learn many life lessons, try something new, interact with peers and counselors in ways that will teach them who they are and/or who they wish to be, behave in ways that make them proud of themselves and support their forming identities.  

For the more committed worrier:  Ask yourself, “what can I do about it?”

Plan ahead: Prepare the camp in advance for who your child is and their needs. Resist worrying that the camp staff will form a negative impression of you or your child, or that you will create some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy if you reveal to them that you are worried about how your child will function at camp.  Think instead of how to explain to them your concerns in a useful and productive way so that they can implement preventive measures to help your child or respond to your child thoughtfully.  No one benefits from playing catch-up and guessing what dynamics are at play.  Today's camps are well versed on all things children and it is their mission to help your child succeed.   If the camp feels your child won't do well at their camp, trust that they know their own limitations and look for a different camp that is better suited for your child.


Homesickness:  Kids I see in practice often worry what will happen if they miss home and are sad.  Normalize this experience for them by helping them accept that this is a likely feeling that will occur at different times.  The counselors at camp know kids get homesick and expect it.  Plan with them what they should do if they feel this way.  Listen to their thoughts and then suggest people they can talk to, ways they can seek out privacy if they feel they need it (one camper talked about crying in the bathroom while another suggested s/he would seek out a favorite counselor or a relative or friend attending the camp).  Review with your child when and how the camp allows for written or oral communication (writing, emails or phone calls) and make an individualized plan for self soothing that works for your child (listening to music, reading a book, playing a favorite activity, hugging a stuffed animal, etc.). Most kids feel better when they have a plan of action and know both what to expect and how they will manage it.  

Of note, homesickness is different from separation anxiety.  If your child typically experiences separation anxiety during transitions, and if so, I recommend seeking support for them during the school year, you should know that many kids find relief from this issue while at sleep away camp.  You can expect the separation at drop off and visiting day to be difficult as is typical for them, however, many children experience a respite from their anxiety once they are settled into camp.  

Help your child be self-aware:  It's always valuable to reflect back to your child who they are to help them form realistic expectations and implement strategies that work for them.  For example, if your child is generally shy in social situations, discuss with them what they think it will be like meeting new kids and ways the camp assists with this process.  Are there opportunities to get to know other campers in advance of camp starting? Questions about what will happen on the bus and who will they sit with should be addressed proactively.  Your goal is to review with them how making friends may take some time and what things they can do to feel more comfortable and prepared.  Some introverted children who seek down time to replenish may find that being with their peers day and night wears them out.  These kids tend to value opportunities for rest, quiet, privacy or interaction with a favorite peer or counselor, and may not always chose to join in the group activities or antics.  Their decision to be separate from their peers periodically is productive for them and allows them to be happy at camp, without always needing to join in.

Pictures: Try to set a limit on how often you look at the pictures or what time of day you seek them out.  Always remember that you cannot know what it means if you do not see your child.  Don't guess why your daughter or son isn't a particular photo.  Remember, this digital phenomenon that captures your child smiling is not a measure of how your child is doing at camp or a genuine reflection on your child's happiness.  If you do see your child smiling in a photo, try not to evaluate the photo for further indication about their daily functioning (what they are wearing, who they are next to, are they a few feet behind their peers or if that is a rash you see on their leg). Why spend all that time surveying hundreds of photo if it doesn't provide you with satisfaction?   Enjoy it.  

Social issues:  As much as we all hope that camp will provide a new environment where our child can be successful, this doesn't always occur.  After all, they are who they are.  Sometimes, this means that the experience your child is having in camp really does reflect on their current social and emotional difficulties, rather then the environment they live in.  This can be a useful reminder that your child needs some direct support to change the way they interact with others and intervention from someone with expertise.   It can also be a reminder to us that the best gift we can give to our children is to let them know we will listen to their upsets, failures and complaints without judgment or criticism.  Some kids will dump all their social difficulties on their parents and then return to their peers with resilience and the ability to cope effectively.  Do not assume that the things you are worrying about for your child are actively upsetting them or intruding on their lives after they have shared them with you.  Another way to address your child's social issues is to be realistic about your own social shortcomings and lessons and share with them your ability to understand their difficulties.  Few of us are without social ups and downs.  I know for me, the best lesson I can share with my children is for them to pay attention to how they feel in relationship with their peers and try to keep company with friends who they trust and feel good spending time with.

Worrying: You can worry about your child all you want.  Perhaps it can't be helped.  But, maybe you can find a way to maximize this time you have apart from your child.  If you are a habitual worrier, you will be worrying about him or her actively in just a few weeks time when they are back in your care.  Maybe you can get something else done in the meantime?  Always remember that worrying is a passive state of helplessness unless you do something constructive with it.  If you find there is an issue that stands out for you, ask yourself if there is something you can actively do.   Is the worry something rational that can be fixed or attended to?  Is it a recurrent issue that is not specific to camp but can be looked into after the summer?  Make a note to yourself to address it later and be glad that you realized the need to address it.  Is it something specific to camp that a phone call to a staff member at camp could help resolve?  If so, take care of it.   If it is something bigger or more vague, ask yourself if it is a worry stemming from your needs as a parent or your child's need for further support.   Is it a recurrent issue or one specific to camp? Share your feelings with someone you trust who supports you and your child.  Make a plan for how you will address the issue going forward.

Maintain a balanced perspective. Remember, your decision to send your child to sleep away camp was well intentioned and that life at home is never perfect either.  Allow your child to have a less than perfect experience and be grateful for the opportunities that camp has provided them (and perhaps you).  Not every child is served best by sleep away camp or succeeds at the first try.   There are many different types of sleep away camps to choose from and some may be better suited for your child than others.  It's a learning experience.  You can't magically know what's going to work out or go awry, but you can try to make sense of what your child tells you in the context of what you know about them.   Take the feedback you receive from them, their counselors, teachers, coaches, and others whose opinion you value and adjust your perception of what makes a good fit accordingly.

© 2014 Robin Luband, Psy.D.