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A Parent’s Survival Guide to Summer Camp Anxiety

Summer shorts and tees purchased, washed and folded neatly in the duffle bag. Bug spray, cell phone charger and the one allowable stuffed animal all packed. Immunization card submitted. Survival snacks tucked away. We were ready for her first week away from home on her own. My daughter was 10 years old and headed to summer pre-teen church camp.

We were pulling into the parking lot to meet the van when suddenly a speeding driver hit my left driver door trying to pass us, obviously missing my blinker signal when I was turning left into the church parking lot. The police were called. Reports were taken but no one was hurt, even though I was stunned.

I didn’t get to give her the proper goodbye I had hoped for. I didn’t get to impart a week’s worth of wisdom about how girls could triangulate, form clicks and leave somebody out. I didn’t get to emphasize that even though there was limited cell phone contact that I would write her every day on the camp email. We had been so busy gathering everything on her ‘to-pack’ list and evaluating the ‘don’t-bring’ list that I really hadn’t taken care of the emotional part, the potential separation anxiety – admittedly now, MY separation anxiety.

My daughter was a little worried about me with the accident but when I told her I was fine, she gathered her sleeping bag, pillows and duffle bag, hugged me and headed happily to the van bound for her summer adventure. Reflecting later, I saw the separation anxiety was all mine. She had a wonderful time, even though there was a ‘mean girl’ incident or two. She learned to stand up for herself or let go of issues that were not that important to her (a valuable life lesson). When she saw other kids getting email and she didn’t have any the first two days, she quickly figured out the system and started corresponding with me. I had the camp’s emergency contact numbers if there was any real need to communicate quickly with her. All was truly well, whether I felt like it or not. As school teachers, nurses at doctor’s offices or summer camp counselors will tell you, most often the parents are the source of anxiety, not the kids themselves. Separation anxiety in the first year of a baby’s life and then later as preschoolers is a normal part of childhood development. I confess, separation anxiety about a 10-year-old off to summer camp is all about the parent.

In hopes of helping anxious moms and dads everywhere, and in a therapeutic desire to share what I know now and proverbially wish someone would have shared with me then, here are some helpful tips:

1. Prepare an emergency communication plan. Be careful not to alarm your child. Simply tell your child that you have emergency numbers for the camp, and you will contact your child if you need to for an emergency.

2. Talk about communication expectations. Review the camp’s policies. Most camps allow family email. Some don’t allow cell phones or only allow them at specified times. Tell them you will be happy to receive any email, and you will likely email them, but also that you want them to have a good time and understand that they may get busy.

3. Trust your parenting. Communicate confidence about your child’s ability to solve social problems. You have raised a respectful child. Trust that your parenting is being internalized. Trust that any social lessons they are learning will help prepare them for the real world. For example, working with people we don’t like and finding a way to get along is a valuable life skill at any age.

4. Make your own plans. Be sure to plan and execute a plan to have some adult fun while your child is away. This is a great time to do things you don’t normally get to do when there is a heavier family schedule. It is also a great time while one child is away to focus special attention on another child or children.

5. Give a positive goodbye message. Short, loving goodbyes are best. Exude confidence and tell your child to have a good time. Finally, don’t worry. You can enjoy summer camp time too!

Laura Reagan-Porras, MS, is a freelance writer, sociologist and a mother of two daughters who enjoyed summer camp!


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