If you ever left home for an extended period as a child you most likely encountered feeling homesick. It is absolutely normal. In fact, to some degree it is a good sign, but as with most good things it can disrupt life if there’s too much of it.
Before we go further, it is important to note that every child is different, including their developmental readiness for being away from home for an extended period of time. If summer camp does not work for your child, that does not mean there is something wrong with your child. Research their developmental readiness, acknowledge their temperament, prepare them for camp, and trust your instincts and your child’s desire.
What is homesickness?
Essentially, being homesick is the anxiety caused by the real or perceived fear of detachment/abandonment. It is similar to the feeling your child has when they are dropped off in nursery for their first time or for their first day of school. It is often accompanied by preoccupying thoughts of family or objects of attachment (bedroom, dog, toys). It is the normal response to leaving your safe attachment and can feel unpredictable and highly anxious.
What’s the solution?
If the problem is the fear of detachment, the solution has to do with feeling attached (trusting in one’s emotional and physical safety). You’ll find below a smattering of ideas to help your child prepare for coping homesickness, which begins months before they ever leave.
Disclaimer – There is no one ‘right’ way to help your child feel emotionally safe when they leave home. Before reading this list, think about what helps your child feel safe when they’re with you. Is it a hug, a word or phrase, a blanket, a stuffed animal, a night light, a picture, etc.?
2 Months Before
Self-soothing - Once our minds start racing it is sometimes too late to slow down the train of negative thoughts. Teach your child to recognize the early signs of anxiety -which may include a racing heart, butterflies in their stomach, welling up of tears, or a knot in their throat- and then teach them how to self-soothe through their senses.
Breathe- Teach them to calm their body and mind by taking slow and deep breaths in through their nose and out through their mouth. I often have my kids count by 3’s – Breathe in for 3 counts, hold for 3 counts, blow slowly out for 3 counts, hold again for 3 counts and repeat 3 times.
Touch – Kids love blankets and stuffed animals because they provide comfort through touch. For camp you might have them pack their favorite animal, blanket or toy.
Taste – By sucking on a candy, chewing a piece of gum, or eating a piece of chocolate a child is able to pay attention to a positive stimulus which helps soothe the negative thoughts and feelings. You might want to send a small bag of mints or their favorite candies (for ‘emergency’ use only).
Smell – They may want to curl up with one of your worn t-shirts or blankets to remind them of home.
Sound – If camp lets them, you can send along some of their favorite music, or even recorded messages from family (and family pets).
Process - Help them learn the skills of processing emotions through talking, writing or drawing before they go off to camp. It is hard to tell a camp counselor what is wrong if you are not sure yourself. Be sure to help them practice this with simple tasks regularly (write about their day, draw something that happened, write a note to their friend, etc.)
Sleepovers - After practicing the skills above, let them stay out of the house for extended periods with one of their friends or family member. Let them know the plan upfront, and then stick to it. Instill in them the knowledge that you trust them and their new environment. Although it may be obvious, make sure the place they are staying will be an emotionally and physically safe environment.
1 Month Before
Siblings - Have an older sibling or friend talk with them about their experience at camp. You may want to guide this towards reality so that it is not sold as either too great or too terrible.
Visit – If possible, you may want to set up a time for a short visit to the camp as a family beforehand, or watch a camp promo video.
Friend – If possible, sending them to camp with a friend can sometimes be the most helpful way to alleviate homesickness.
Notes – Pack notes in their bag numbered for each day of camp with a reminder of your love for them and why they are at camp.
Validate their fear but don’t get wrapped up in it. Show them that you have trust in them, the camp and the camp leaders, while acknowledging what they are afraid of.
Contact – Show them how to contact you via phone, email or letter writing, but don’t force it.
Plan – Give them a simple structure to understand what they are about to do, but do not overwhelm them with too many details.
Most of all, relax. Your child gets their greatest sense of comfort and safety when they see that you are not scared, but that you are confident that their upcoming camp will be a great experience.