Help for homesickness at camp

Homesick at camp

By Cathy Ashby

Homesickness is a common and totally treatable malady at summer camp.

For some kids at camp, homesickness feels like a mild case of the blues — a twinge of sadness that comes and goes throughout the day. For others, it hits harder with overwhelming depression and bouts of uncontrollable crying, punctuated by panic attacks, nausea and an elevated heart rate.

Regardless of what form it takes, homesickness at camp can be scary. It strikes children of all ages, and, according to the American Camp Association, it strikes nearly all children.

"Nearly 96 percent of all boys and girls who were spending two weeks or more at overnight camp reported some homesickness on at least one day," the ACA reported. Almost all children (and grown-ups!) feel homesick when they're away from home."

Who Gets Homesick?

It's hard to predict which campers will and which campers will not experience severe homesickness, but the likelihood grows under certain conditions:

  • If the child's parents are overly concerned about homesickness
  • If the child is a first-time camper or is very young
  • If the child's home life is going through big changes (divorce, death, new siblings, etc.)
  • If the child has been sent to camp against his or her will
  • If the child is chronically anxious

What can parents do about homesickness?

"Homesickness comes from the fear of the unknown. All youngsters (and many adults, too) when taken from their familiar surroundings feel the uncertainties of the new experience," says Bunny Brown, Director Emeritus of Skyland Camp for Girls in Clyde, North Carolina. "Parents can acknowledge the problem but negate its lasting effect on the experience ahead ... by encouraging the youngster to have the most fun ever and enjoy and report the new adventures."

Brown suggests that parents explain that homesickness is normal and that it will pass. She strongly encourages parents to focus on the positive, rather than the negative. "Tell the departing camper you are excited about sharing the love of riding or swimming or tripping, and [ask her] to write you all about it. Convince her that there will be new friends to help her discover the fun ahead."

In addition to talking with children before camp begins, Don Wood, former executive director of the American Camping Association's Southeastern division, recommends that parents include "comfort items" when packing for camp. "Send a picture of the family dog or family or something that the child will relate to home," he suggests. "Parents may also send cards already stamped and addressed for the child to write home."

Another popular strategy involves sending friends or siblings to camp together in the hopes that they will comfort one another and avoid homesick feelings altogether.

Whenever possible, camp directors suggest letting the camper familiarize herself with the people and the program before camp begins. If the camp offers a commuter option, consider introducing your child to the program as a day camper.

Click next below for more homesickness tips and risk factors

What should parents NOT do about homesickness?

According to Brown and Wood, there are a few things parents should not do when preparing a child to avoid homesickness:

  • Do not send your child to overnight camp if you are certain he will be homesick.
  • Do not remind your child about things she will be missing at home.
  • Do not tell your child that you will pick him up if he isn't having a good time.

Brown cautions parents to tread carefully when talking about homesickness. She also urges parents to examine their own feelings. "Some parents want a camper to be homesick to prove the value of their love and the love at home," she says.

If you're feeling a bit of your own parental separation anxiety, don't tell your child that you will be lonely without her. A simple "I love you, and I'll miss you while you're gone" is sufficient. If you overdo it, she'll worry about leaving you alone.

Who can help with homesickness?

Few people have more experience dealing with homesickness than camp professionals, so it's not surprising that Wood encourages parents to ask camp staff members for help if the need arises before or during camp.

"Counselors are trained to watch for homesickness and work with the camper to help him or her adjust," he says.

Cick next below for six risk factors for homesickness at camp

6 Risk Factors of homesickness at camp

Your child may be prone to homesickness if:

  1. This is her first time away from home and/or parents.
  2. She has low expectations about camp.
  3. She feels forced to go to camp.
  4. She doesn't trust new people and doesn't like new things.
  5. She isn't good at coping with negative feelings or difficult emotions.
  6. She is overly anxious or nervous on a routine basis.

Cathy Ashby, a freelance writer and editor, is a former camp director and counselor.