Helping children process their anxieties about being away from home
We know that some of our campers wrestle with nervousness about going to camp. For some their anxiety is about going away for the first time. For others it's about returning to a place where they were very successful, but now find it hard to sort through their memories of when camp had its challenges. This is perfectly natural. Camp does present children with obstacles and learning opportunities. That's a part of what makes it such a valuable experience!
For most children, going away to summer camp is their first significant time away from home. And whether it's an experience they are now struggling to process, or one that looms large in their future, it can be very challenging for parents to know how to help their child without throwing up their hands to say "fine, then you don't have to go anymore!"
One of these campers may be yours. Starting in the fall you may even start to hear language such as “I just won’t go”, “you can’t make me!” or the confounding "I just don't want to talk about it". These statements can terrify parents, and rightly so! The impulse is to call the Camp Office and tell us that your child won't be joining us in New Hampshire this summer. But in these situations our children are almost always using coded language that masks what they are really thinking. In our experience, what they are most often trying to say to their parents is “I’m scared. This Camp experience has moments that are outside of my comfort zone. I struggle to see how the positives may outweigh the negatives. Can you be a resource for me?” This is an important moment in your relationship with your child. We’d like to be a resource for you if these conversations should arise.
How About Tomorrow? – Experience has shown us that most of these conversations are initiated at bedtime. While this is a great time to bond with your son or daughter, it may also be a difficult time to have such an important conversation. Acknowledge what your child is expressing to you, but ask if you can revisit the conversation during the daytime.
Avoid Circular Conversations – It is unlikely that you will be able to win an argument that begins with “you can’t make me go!” So try and avoid these conversations all together. Instead, try something like “I can see that you are emotional about this topic, and I understand that. How about we just put this conversation aside until we both feel calmer?”. And then find a time to resume the conversation when everyone is in a better place.
Refresh Their Memories – Months after the summer, it can be hard for some campers to remember why they liked K&E in the first place! In place of their positive memories, they may now find that they can only remember that moment they were homesick, or that tough relationship with a bunkmate. Ask them what they remember about Camp. Encourage them to reconnect with the reasons that they chose K&E. Consider showing them photos from this past summer, and ask them to describe what was taking place when the picture was taken. The act of processing these memories can be a powerfully positive reminder.
Share Some Confidence – Communicate to them that you believe that they have the skills to be successful at Camp (or even more successful than last year if this are a veteran camper). Even if you aren’t 100% confident yourself, hearing this from a parent can have a major impact on a child’s willingness to take healthy risks. This reassurance may be enough to reshape your child’s thoughts about Camp.
Share an Experience – Find a more fun, relaxing time to discuss his/her concerns about Camp, and do something together. Play a game just the two of you. Work on a fun art project. Go for a bike ride or out for an ice cream. Resolve not to answer your Iphone the whole time. Spend the first half hour just being together. Children are much more open to challenging conversations when they feel like the adult is focused on them in a positive, fun way!
Share Your Experiences – If you can, share with your child a story or two about a time in your life when you were anxious about something. Tell them about how you tried something and overcame that fear. Or when you were in a new community -- at college, a new job, a sports team -- and took charge in making your situation more enjoyable. If possible, share an anecdote about a time when you backed away from an experience, and ultimately regretted it. As the greatest role model in your child’s life, they are looking to you for reassurance that their feelings are normal, but are also looking for guidance on how to appropriately handle these feelings.
Expect This Again – It is unlikely that a single conversation will neutralize these anxieties completely. It will probably make things better for a time, and then your child will want to revisit this discussion. That’s to be expected. But with each round this conversation should get easier, and the frequency of these talks should diminish.
Reach Out – We want to be your year-round partners. We have years of experience helping children and families work through these kind of challenges. We have tools and ideas with which you may not be familiar. We’re available to you and your child for phone calls, emails, and even an additional home visit, should you really need it. Please do not hesitate to contact us and share what is going on in your family.
We know how much you love your child, and how committed you are to providing them with the most developmentally appropriate experiences possible. By helping your child face this anxiety you will be giving them a gift that is even greater than a summer at Camp. You will be helping them develop into a more confident, resilient person. We look forward to working with you on that goal!
If your son or daughter is struggling with anxieties about being away from home this summer, whether this will be their first or eighth summer, please email us or call us in the camp office at 781-793-0091.