As the family mini-van pulled into the parking lot of her nine-year-old daughter’s first sleepaway summer camp, Jacqueline admits she was more than a little emotional.
“I worried about her being homesick, and about her fitting in,” says the Oshawa, Ont., mom of three.
Jacqueline isn’t alone. “All parents feel powerful feelings when they wave good-bye to their child at the camp busses,” says Janice Weintraub, a Toronto-based Psycho-educational Consultant at JVS Toronto, “particularly when the experience is new for the family.”
While each family’s experience with camp is different, there are some common concerns that arise as the end of the school year looms closer. Thankfully, many of these fears can be alleviated with a little preparation and research before the final school bell rings.
As with most developmental stages, children will demonstrate that they’re emotionally ready to leave home. One sign of readiness is a repeated interest in summer camp.
“If a child shows interest in how a camp works, the activities, or other children who attend, you likely have a child who is ready to try out these new experiences,” explains Weintraub, whose husband is the co-owner/director of Camp Manitou in Parry Sound, Ont. She also suggests trying out “a weekend or two away from home, even if it’s exclusively with close relatives like grandparents.”
While a few children may experience homesickness, Nicole Markowitz, director of Camp Robin Hood in Markham, Ont., explains the importance of setting children up for success at camp.
“Take the decision to go to camp seriously,” she says. This includes explaining that, “I’m not going to pick you up early if we’ve already agreed on three weeks at camp.” Weintraub adds that it’s important to reassure children that feeling homesick is normal, but also that you “have confidence in their ability to cope with these feelings.”
One big no-no is to make deals with kids that are contrary to the camp’s rules, such as agreeing to speak regularly by telephone when the camp’s policy doesn’t allow it. “This implicitly communicates that you lack confidence in their ability to work through homesick feelings,” says Weintraub. “As well it undermines the camp’s efforts to manage the situation.”
Sometimes, it’s not just the kids who are feeling a little lonely — parents can suffer from a sense of longing too.
“It is possible to feel a mixture of fear, loss, and sadness, although these emotions can take busy parents who have been focused on planning, preparations, and the child’s emotional state by surprise,” explains Weintraub.
Many camps will have a policy of contacting parents to report on how a child is adjusting. “Until then, a parent who is struggling with the separation should keep busy, spend time with supportive friends and family, and develop a plan for how to use the newfound time and space in their lives until camp ends,” suggests Weintraub.
Concerns about food and other allergies shouldn’t eliminate camp from your summer plans.
According to Markowitz, many summer camps have nurses on site to assist children with allergies. But, she urges, “open communication between parents and the camp is essential.”
Allergies can be handled discreetly so that a child is not singled out, and parents can teach their child to advocate for herself by asking whether the foods contain anything that could cause a reaction.
“Bullying can occur in any setting where kids socialize together,” explains Weintraub.
While parents can’t prevent bullying from occurring, they can verify that their camp is equipped to deal with the situation, should it arise.
“Parents should do research and feel confident with the camp they select,” says Markowitz. “See if the camp has a bullying or zero-tolerance policy.” She also recommends checking the camp’s code of conduct and its provincial accreditation, as registered camps are required to adhere to specific guidelines.