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Preparing your nervous camper

Pictures of summer camp usually include laughing children playing games and sports outside in the sun. What isn’t shown are the worries and nervousness that almost every child experiences leading up to camp.

For most kids, the excitement outweighs the fears of the unknown and they forget all about the butterflies in their tummies the second they get out of the car at drop off. However, for a few children, their nerves get in the way of what should be a positive experience they will never forget.


Here are some tips for how you can help your nervous or homesick camper say farewell to their fears and jump headfirst into sleepaway camp:


Acknowledge their concerns. The most important step to helping your child tame their nerves is to tell them that it is completely normal for them to have apprehension. Ask them what they are worried about and answer any questions they might have.


“They may have a misconception about some aspect of camp, like they may think that they have to spend every night sleeping outside,” says Nick Taven, board chair of the Alberta Camping Association (ACA).


“Make sure they have all of the information they want about what to expect.”


It can help to let your child know that you were nervous your first time at camp or being away from home overnight.


Ask them what might help them feel better while they are away and come up with tools to stay calm together. This can look like deep breathing, closing their eyes and counting to ten, playing with a certain type of fidget toy that can fit in their pocket or anything else allowed by the camp staff that helps them relax.


Frontload with facts. Giving your child a sense of control regarding the selection of the camp can go a long way to calming their nerves. If they have researched the options and chosen the camp themselves, they will be more aware of the kinds of activities that will take place and less worried about the unknown.


“Make sure they know that they will be safe at camp,” says Nick. “Tell them, there will be camp counselors who can help them with any problems they have.”


Share your camp success stories with your children. Let them know summer camp is where you learned to fish and where you met one of your best friends to this day.


“Frame it as a stage of development that you know they are ready for now,” says Nick. “Make sure they know why you want them to go and all of the positive things they will get out of it.”


Don’t forget to tell them that you can’t wait to hear all about it when you come and pick them up.


Set up for success. Children often feel more comfortable about going to camp when they know they will have some of their own things with them.


Go through the camp’s list of items they can bring and let them pack their own bag to put them at ease.


You should chat with your child about how and when you will be able to communicate with them. Letting them know that you will be able to speak with them on the phone once during the week or that they can write you letters or emails can reduce their apprehension. 


Make sure you read all communications from the camp and/or call the staff to determine what is allowed.


You can help prepare your child for being away from you overnight by allowing them to have at least one sleepover at their grandparents’ or a friend’s house before camp. This can take a bit of the mystery out of what it is like to be away from you for a night.


Homesick help


What do you do if you are a parent who has received the “Come get me!” call in the middle of those sleepovers? 


Unfortunately, the things that make sleepaway camp wonderful are also the things that can make it difficult for children.


Being away from your family and gaining independence can be very challenging for some children and as a result, many experience what we call homesickness. Missing home while away at camp can cause anxious feelings for both children and parents, but there are a few ways you can help your kid get through it and come out better in the end.


Prepare. If you have a child who is prone to homesickness, chances are you know it. They may be more nervous than the average child about camp, asking dozens of questions or not acting like themselves leading up to “the big day.”


“If you think your child will be homesick, try to be proactive and give the camp staff some strategies that work for you at home,” says Nick. “Let us know some phrases that work well and work with the staff to come up with a strategy if they do miss home.”


Often going to an open house before the camp can also help reduce homesickness because they can familiarize themselves with the layout, activities, and staff before they arrive.


Keep open communication. Make sure you are clear about the camp’s communication policy.


Ask the staff how they will get in touch with you if there are any problems and keep that line of communication open. Staff can be very helpful in assessing whether a child’s homesickness is part of a healthy adjustment to parent separation or something more.


Take advantage of all the opportunities that the camp affords. Some allow a campfire night with parents, visiting day or an end-of-camp presentation to families.


Remember that although it can be hard to get a pleading letter or tearful phone call from your child begging to come home, it can be best for them in the long run to help them solve the problem and learn to become more resilient in less-than-ideal situations.


Know when to call it quits. How do you know when it is time to call it quits and pick up your child from camp early? Nick says that is a decision each family must make individually.


“In my opinion, if it has been a couple of days and the child is not sleeping and seems quite stressed, it might be time to at least come down to the camp as a parent and talk to your child and the staff.”


He adds that pushing through the first night and next day is often all a child needs to realize that they are safe and having fun. “If they are feeling a bit apprehensive, we often help them by breaking up the days a bit and saying things like ‘there is only one more block until lunch’ or ‘There are only two more sleeps until you go home.’”


Other signs that you may need to go to the camp to talk to someone in person include your child running away from counselors, intentionally antagonizing other campers, not listening to staff, acting out for negative attention, or refusing to eat.


Going to sleepaway summer camp is a fun and formative experience for children and with the help of some of these tools, you can help your child know that you are there for them, even while they are exercising their independence. CCM


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