By Rachel Sparks
Homesickness: we’ve all been there, either as a child or as a concerned parent. As summer approaches, the concern for homesickness grows as moms and dads prepare to send their little ones off to sleepaway summer camp.
Though it may be hard at first, spending time away from home is an integral part of the growing up process, and overcoming homesickness can be one of the most empowering and transformative moments in a child’s young life. Taking part in new experiences away from the comfort of home allows children to grow in character and confidence while opening them up to adventure and exciting opportunities.
We experienced this process firsthand with our oldest child two summers ago. As the days crept closer to camp, my emotions paralleled that of my child, occasionally fluctuating between excitement and nervousness. Sleepaway camp was new territory for both of us, and we would each have to learn to navigate the unknown in our own ways. While new experiences can be unsettling for both parent and child, open communication and intentional preparation can help to calm any creeping anxiety.
One day, I sat down with my child, and together we talked through any and every hypothetical situation that could possibly arise at camp. Our discussion ranged from broad topics, like what the counselors might be like, and what activities were available, all the way down to the nitty-gritty, like where every single item was packed in the trunk. As a parent, I felt an inherent desire to maintain as much control as I could, which I exercised through tasks like triple-checking that there were enough pre-addressed letters to write home, and ensuring that my child had clothing for every potential weather condition.
I continued to check and re-check everything until I was suddenly struck with the realization that I would not be able to control every situation that my child was about to face, despite my best effort. In that moment, I realized that I needed to follow the very advice I had just given my child––to choose to trust over letting small worries steal the excitement. I found that as I began to allow confidence and excitement to grow, the same process began for my child. Slowly but surely, we both started to trust that we were ready for sleepaway camp! Although it was unfamiliar territory, my child would be in a fun, safe and positive environment surrounded by great people.
Here are a few ways you can help prepare your child to grow through camp, should they experience a moment or two of homesickness.
The importance of communication continues even after kids leave for camp. Camp is such a wonderful time to encourage your child because it provides a unique opportunity to communicate with one another in a new and exciting way through letter or email. Most children don’t get much mail of their own at home, so this experience brings a newfound sense of independence. When writing letters to your child at camp, don’t dwell on home too much; instead, ask questions about their experiences and tell them how excited you are to hear of the fun adventures they are having, and the new friends they are making. You want to make sure your letters serve as an outlet for them to share their thoughts and memories, rather than a catalyst for homesickness.
In addition to open communication, you can also take steps to prepare your child in terms of confidence. This process should start long before camp. It all begins with letting children know that they are strong and capable. Speak confidence and positivity into them, and be sure not to overstate how much you will miss them while they are gone, as this could lead them to associate camp with feelings of sadness or guilt. Instead, talk about how quickly time will pass and how much fun they’re going to have during their new adventure.
Equip for the Challenge
Avoid telling children that if they become sad, you will pick them up; if children know they have an easy ‘out’, they might avoid immersing themselves in the challenging, character-building aspects of camp that will help them grow most. Instead, you can talk about how to cope if they do happen to have a moment of sadness. Suggest things like writing a letter home, hugging a favorite stuffed animal, or talking to someone. Teach them to “bounce” their thoughts––this is the ability to recognize that they are sad, and then choose to bounce their thoughts to something happy.
As parents, we often want to keep our children from any kind of struggle or trouble. This is a good and natural part of parenting. Unfortunately, we can only keep our kids from so much and for so long before our protection begins to inhibit their natural growth in character and confidence. Our children are bound to encounter trials in this world, and it’s our job as parents to equip them to be able to face these challenges on their own.
The best way to prepare children is to allow them to encounter small trials in a safe environment where you know they will be cared for and loved. Camp is the perfect opportunity for them to face and overcome minor hurdles like building new friendships, making decisions on their own, coping with a little homesickness and more. Children will feel accomplished knowing they have handled something difficult on their own, thus setting them up for success and giving them experiences to draw from the next time a challenge arises.
Preparing your child to respond to opportunities and challenges like homesickness will set him or her up to truly experience all that summer camp has to offer. Small victories, like getting settled into their cabin or conquering a little sadness will soon translate into larger victories, like making new friends, and trying new things You will be surprised at how transformative the camp experience can be. Your child will return braver, stronger and better equipped to handle the challenges of everyday life.