Ensure a Happy Summer Camper

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Florence Leon first went to overnight camp when she was 12. Through umpteen leathercraft wallets and throat-numbing singalongs until she was a college-aged bunk counselor, she logged only great summer memories and experiences. “Two of my best friends today I met at camp,” she says. “And that was 35 years ago.”

But what’s on her mind as this summer unfolds is how her son, at 12, will sail through his maiden journey into that cherished family tradition. Frankly, admits the Philadelphia social worker, she’s worried about Stefan. Not so much about pillow-soaked bouts of homesickness, the probable chance of lost or unwashed underwear, or even the one-in-a-zillion chance that his counselor is a pedophile.

She’s concerned about his sunscreen or you may get cancer,’ tell your child that the sun may be very hot and strong at camp, and ask how they will handle it. They may say, ‘I’ll wear a hat or stay indoors’ and you can casually suggest that while those are good options, another is sunscreen — and that they are going to camp because they are responsible enough to make sure they wear it each day.”

This can strengthen a sense of self-reliance in potentially worried campers — for the summer and beyond. “There’s great relief in feelings of mastery, and children will see themselves as braver and smarter when they faced a challenge and met it on their own,” says Suzanne Thompson, PhD, pediatric psychologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. It also helps parents come to grips with an important reality that may quench their own fears: There are some things they can’t control.

  • Get real. Even Las Vegas bookies are unlikely to take bets that Junior will be kidnapped from a s’mores-filled campfire or break a leg playing softball.

    “Separation anxiety, in part, is a fear of the unknown, but parents need to be realistic about the unknown and stress this in their kids, as well as themselves,” says Thompson, herself a former camp counselor. “Yes, bad things occasionally do happen at summer camp, but their real chance of happening is very, very low. Virtually all kids come home happy and better for the experience, even if it’s without their underwear.”

  • Keep sendoffs short and sweet. There’s a good reason why most camps transport kids or quickly shoo off parents on that first day — when kids are most vulnerable to homesickness or anxiety. “It may be hard to pry yourself away from a crying child, but the sooner you do, the better,” says Albano. “Long goodbyes, especially when either of you is crying, only extend the suffering.”
  • Consider reminders — after you consider personalities. Many campers benefit from bringing along reminders of home, a love (or encouraging) goodbye note, a family picture, or even a lipsticked kiss to their hand. But this tactic can backfire in some kids, making them pine more for what they’ve left.

    “You really have to know your child and yourself,” says Thompson. “If your instincts tell you these mementos will help, include them. But don’t if you think they’ll only add to their homesickness and your feelings of missing them.”

  • “When you signed the contract to send your child to camp, there was also an implied contract that you trust they will have fun and be safe,” says Albano.

    “It’s normal to have concerns, but if you are really struggling with these issues, you’re sending out contradictory messages that most children will pick up, and likely trigger or contribute to feelings of anxiety. The idea of going to camp may cause you both distress, but it’s working through distress that helps us advance.”