Most parents who are sending their kids to camp for the first time know that their child will experience some homesickness, and research by clinical psychologist Christopher Thurber, Ph.D., confirms it: 95 percent of children at summer camp are at least a little homesick, and 20 percent of kids find it upsetting enough that it can ruin their camp experience.
But serious homesickness is not inevitable, and parents and camp staff can help prevent it, according to a report co-authored by Thurber and published in the journal Pediatrics. The report advises parents to take concrete steps before their children leave home to ensure that that they get the most out of camp. Among those steps:
• Make sure your child knows that homesickness is normal, and that nearly every camper misses home sometimes. Explain coping strategies your child might use, such as writing letters or talking to a counselor.
• Practice for camp by having your child spend a few days at a friend or relative's house.
• Give your child choices. Being away from home is distressing, in part, because a child may feel that he has no control over the situation. You can help prevent this feeling by letting your child help choose the camp. Help him learn about the new environment he'll be in and be clear about how long he'll be away from home.
• If you're anxious, try not to let your child know. In order to feel confident about their own ability to cope away from home, children need to feel that you have confidence in their abilities. Discuss your own anxiety or ambivalence only with other adults.
• Do not make "pick-up deals." Don't tell your child that if she's feeling distressed, you'll come pick her up. Instead, normalize her feelings, prepare her in advance and encourage her to have planned coping strategies.
Thurber, who has researched and written extensively on homesickness, is also the author of The Summer Camp Handbook (Perspective Publishing, 2000), a 2003 NAPPA Parenting Resources award-winner.
"For over 100 years, camps and schools have patted homesick kids on the back, tried to keep them busy and hoped it will go away," Thurber notes. "But research shows that it's healthier, and more effective, to think about prevention."
You can read more about how to prevent homesickness and keep summer camp a positive experience at Thurber's Web site, www.campspirit.com, or check out the American Camp Association Web site at www.CampParents.org.
© Parenthood.com, used with permission.
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