Your Child and Sleepaway Camp - Questions and Tips

How to tell when a child is ready and how to help with homesickness

sleepaway camp
Sleepaway summer camp can be full of adventures and activities, and many grade-schoolers may be ready to take on the challenge. iStockphoto

When is a child ready for sleepaway camp? Many parents of grade-schoolers begin asking this question, especially when kids begin to express interest in going away to a summer camp with their friends.

While it’s generally the case that older grade-school age kids -- say, age 9 and up -- tend to be more equipped to handle the separation and self-reliance that going away to a camp demands, some children may be ready at a much younger age.

When it comes to the question of whether or not a child is ready for sleepaway camp, many factors besides a child’s age should be considered.

Questions to Ask When Considering Overnight Camps

If you’re thinking about sleepaway camp for your child, ask yourself the following:

  • Has your child slept at a friend’s or a relative’s house, attended a sleepover party, or gone on organized overnights such as school trips? How did he do? Was he fine being away from home, or did he feel homesick? Was he able to take care of himself or did he need reminders to brush his teeth and get dressed?
  • Is he independent? Does he normally take care of himself and his belongings without much supervision? Camp counselors will lead and teach kids, and may even be helpful in helping kids cope with bouts of homesickness. But children will generally be expected to take care of themselves and follow schedules and routines without close supervision.
  • Consider her personality. If she is the type of person who thrives in new situations and makes friends easily, chances are she will not have trouble transitioning to the unfamiliar setting and routines of summer camp. On the other hand, if she warms up to new people and places very slowly, and prefers the familiar comforts of home and family to social activities, she may have a more difficult time adjusting to an unfamiliar place.
  • Does he have an older sibling or a close friend who will be at camp with him? Having someone that he knows at the same camp can make a big difference in helping with the transition to summer camp. Friends and siblings can not only lean on each other when they feel pangs of homesickness, but they can also motivate each other to work through those feelings and have fun at camp.

Tips for Sleepaway Camp Success

  • Try small timeframes – say, a week or so. If you or your child feel uncertain about how she will fare at sleepaway camp, try to opt for a program that allows short stays -- a week or two at most. Your child may either find that even that is too long (in which case, you know that she isn’t ready yet for a longer separation), or she may feel like it’s too short (in which case you know that she may be ready for a longer session next summer).
  • Prepare your child for pangs of homesickness. Explain to him that most children experience feelings of missing their parents, siblings, and the familiar comforts of home. Tell him that all the other campers are feeling the same way, but that the fun and activities of summer camp can soon make those feelings more bearable and lessen them a great deal. To put it in kid terms: Missing home is normal, and the more you try not to fight those feelings and accept them while trying to get into the activities, the more they’ll realize that they are having fun and feeling better.
  • Do not show anxiety. One of the best ways you can help your child feel better about going away to camp is by not showing your child any anxious feelings you may have about the separation. Instead, put focus on the fun, learning, and adventures your child will have at camp.

How to Help a Child with Homesickness

  • First, do not minimize his feelings. If your child is upset and tells you he hates camp and misses home, listen to what he has to say and express sympathy and support. Do not dismiss what he’s feeling.
  • Give your child a chance to overcome her homesickness. If you receive an email or phone call from your child saying that he misses you terribly and wants to come home, your first instinct may be to jump into the car to go get your child. But it’s important in situations like this to gauge what’s best for your child before you jump the gun.
  • Be aware that they may regret leaving. In many cases, kids may feel such strong pangs of homesickness that all they can think about is wanting to leave camp. But once they leave, they may regret not trying harder to stick it out. Before deciding what’s best, talk to your child’s counselors and camp directors to get a sense of what they have experienced with homesick campers and seek out their advice.
  • Then, talk to your child and give her some options. Tell her that you can come and get her but that you will give her a few days or a week in which she must try to pack as much fun as she can into the days before you come to pick her up. Then, she can feel the security of knowing that you will come to get her, and have the freedom to really see how she feels about the camp activities.

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