How to prevent homesickness at camp

Five must-read tips to lower the chances your child is homesick at summer camp

It's a difficult and anxious decision: should you sign your child up for an overnight summer camp? You want them to have a wonderful first experience but you can't get one thing off your mind: homesickness. You dread that middle of the night phone call with your child in begging to be picked up.

Well, take a deep breath. According to the research of Dr. Christopher Thurber, a summer camp expert, enthusiast, and author of The Summer Camp Handbook, less than 1 percent of all children at overnight camps have to be picked up early. Of course, it is possible to be homesick without getting to the point of needing to come home. But for those of you thinking "but what if my kid is in that one percent?!" here are five tips that will help with this process.

1. Make sure they're ready. Deciding whether or not your child is ready for an overnight camp can be the hardest decision of all. According to Dr. Thurber, "Kids are ready when they start asking about camp and when they have no trouble with overnights at friends' houses." As a good rule of thumb, he suggests that "most 8 and 9-year-olds are ready for a two-week camp," if they have spent some nights away from home and been okay.

2. Have them choose the camp. The chances of homesickness will be greatly lowered if they are at a camp with enough fun and activity to keep their mind off home. And what's the easiest way to find a camp that is the right fit for your child? Dr. Thurber says to "involve them in the camp selection process" and it is likely the selected camp will be one they'll enjoy.

3. Sign up with a friend – if they want. Talk to the parents of your kid's close friends, or have them talk to their friends themselves and find out who else is considering an overnight camp. If you find a friend or two who your child wants to go to camp with, coordinate with the parents to sign them up together. Having a friend at overnight camp can make a tremendous difference.

4. Be positive at drop-off. Ok, so you chose a camp, drove your child there, unpacked their gear, and now it's time to say goodbye. This can be the most difficult part as a parent and for your child. It is important for parents to stay happy and composed at this time. Dr. Thurber, who also created The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success DVD-CD set, says parents "should NEVER EVER say, “If you feel homesick, I'll come and get you.'" Stay away from putting the idea of homesickness in your child's head as you say your goodbyes. 

5. Write letters, don't call. While it might be hard for your child to adjust to being away from home, you might find yourself "child-sick" missing them. You will probably want to check in with your child after a few days, but try to resist! As Dr. Thurber says, "the smartest and most enlightened thing that camps can do is to encourage letter writing and only letter writing. Talking on the phone is not a cure for homesickness. It makes it worse. Only staff should call parents." From the child's point of view, hearing your voice on the phone can make them stop and think about you and home, so it's possible a phone call could cause homesickness!

The last thing to remember on this topic is that being homesick at an overnight camp is just part of growing up. You were probably homesick at least to some extent at some point in your childhood. If you learn your kid is homesick, don't panic. As Dr. Thurber points out, "Your child doesn't have a broken bone, he simply misses the things he loves about home. It's perfectly normal and he'll be stronger at the end of the camp.”