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Helping Kids Beat Homesickness at Sleep-Away Camp

by Michael Thompson

Michael Thompson

Michael Thompson, Ph.D. is a consultant, author and psychologist specializing in children and families. Read more »

I visited nine sleep-away camps last summer and talked to a lot of children about their experiences of being away from home. What impressed me was how proud kids are of overcoming their homesickness, especially if they had a pretty bad case of it their first week or their first year.

One girl, Jenny, remembering her homesickness at camp said, “I felt like I had a fire in my stomach, and it was burning… I didn’t know what it was but it terrified me… I didn’t want my friends to make it better. I just wanted to wallow in my sadness.”

Did the staff help her? “People told me that I should get distracted and that would help me, but I just wanted to get my tears out.” I asked whether she had cried all day at camp. “Not all day,” she related with a big smile, “There were breaks in there.” And how did she manage? “There was a girl here my first year who helped me….she told me to think of it in three-day chunks. So I lasted.

The girl who was telling me this was 14 years old, enjoying her fifth summer at residential camp. Early on, she had been one of the most homesick campers. It took her three summers to beat it, and looking back she was angry at her mom and dad for letting her leave early that second summer. When I asked her whether she felt proud of herself, she said, “If it had only been one year, maybe I’d be prouder…It was just something that was there. and I learned to do it.” She sounded matter-of-fact, but I could tell that she felt victorious.

Ninety-five percent of children experience at least a bit of homesick feelings when they are away from their parents at summer camp. Homesickness is completely normal. If a child loves his or her parents and has a good home, why wouldn’t he or she feel some longing for mom, for dad, for the dog or for home cooking? The paradoxical thing about camp is that even though children sometimes report painful levels of homesickness, they often rate themselves as very happy in the activities of the day.

The parents’ problem is figuring out whether their child is happy or miserable at camp. It’s tough to judge from a distance, especially if your child is one of those campers who sends notes like this:

Dear Dad/Mom,
I’m still not feeling good. I have thrown up 4 times since I got here. I’m having no fun and just really want to come home and see my doctor to figure out what is going on with me. I hate Windy, it is worse than Camp Sunset. My cabin is okay but I haven’t slept a full
night yet.

Throwing up? Not sleeping? Reading this note, the conscientious mother has grabbed her car keys and is half-way out the door, heading for camp to rescue her child. But wait… the letter continues:

My fav person in my cabin is our AC Lisa (AC is assistant counselor) she is really great…. I even miss Ben & Johnny. At least this week has kind of gone by sort of kind of fast… Well tell the cats hello for me…

Love you, Miss you & Want to come home,

This letter makes me laugh because it was written by the daughter of a camp director in Minnesota who had sent her to a residential camp in Massachusetts, where, a decade later, she is now a long-term member of the staff.

The research tells us that even though almost all children will have some “homesick feelings;” only one in five campers--like Jenny, the girl at the beginning of this blog--experience real distress. And only 8% of children develop such severe homesickness that they’re unable to beat it. For those children, homesickness remains high throughout the camp session, dipping only in the last few days when they know their caretakers will be arriving soon.

What can you do to help your child beat homesickness at camp?

  1. You can do some preparation. Tell your children that homesickness is normal, that it means he or she has a home that he or she loves.
  2. Empathize with your child’s fears, but do not get infected by them.
  3. Express confidence in your child’s resilience and admiration for his or her courage in going to camp.
  4. Tell your child that you are sure he or she will get help from counselors and friends when needed.
  5. And, please, tell your children that you want them to have fun. Children need to go off to camp with your blessing, not your anxiety.

If your child’s been to sleep-away camp before, was his homesickness manageable? If this will be your child’s first overnight camp experience, are you overly concerned about how she’ll fair?

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