What every parent should know before sending kids to summer camp

School’s out, temperatures are rising, and the outdoors are beckoning and that means that across the country, kids and their parents are gearing up for day camps and sleep-away camps. The problem is, not all soon-to-be campers are excited about their summer schedules. Some children are unsure about spending so much time away from their homes and parents and some are downright terrified by the prospect. Yes, most children experience some degree of separation anxiety, and many eventually learn to deal with the absence of their parents without experiencing undue stress. However, assuming that your homesick child will “get over it” might be a false—and even dangerous—assumption to make.

          “I know from firsthand experience, as well as subsequent study, that separation anxiety can be more than just a harmless childhood phase,” says Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In (StepWise Press, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-9658261-9-8, $18.00, www.toddpatkin.com).

“As parents, we need to be careful that we aren’t unwittingly harming our children by trying to make them stronger, or by expecting them to do what we did or what all of the neighbors’ children are doing.”

          Patkin speaks from experience. He dealt with separation anxiety throughout his childhood and remembers one instance in particular that was nearly disastrous.

          “When I was ten years old, my parents decided to send me to a sleep-away sports camp in a different state. They figured I’d enjoy it because my brother did, and because I loved sports. Boy, were my mom and dad wrong despite their best intentions!

          “The first night away from home I barely slept, and the next day I felt panicked and sick. Soon, I was experiencing full-blown anxiety attacks (though I didn’t recognize them as such). My heart was pounding so hard I thought I was going to die. After seventy-two hours away, I was willing to do anything to get home so I tried to drink some of the paint in the art shop to force my ticket home. Luckily a counselor caught me before I could really harm myself, and my parents were called to bring me home early.”

           Patkin’s story illustrates in vivid detail just how real the anxiety that stems from severe separation anxiety is for children, and it also shows that homesickness won’t necessarily go away on its own. Stressful separations can have longer-lasting consequences, too.

          “I have been haunted by memories of that terrible experience at camp from time to time ever since,” Patkin shares. “I found it difficult to sleep away from home throughout my teens, needed to attend a college close to my parents’ home, and even today, at age forty-six, I often have to push myself through a brief period of anxiety when I’m leaving home on an extended business trip.”

           Patkin is adamant that it’s crucial for parents to gauge their kids’ levels of anxiety before making any firm summer plans. And licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Howard J. Rankin, who wrote the Expert View sections in Finding Happiness, agrees.

          “There are many different degrees of homesickness, and it’s important to deal with them in appropriate ways,” Rankin adds. “It’s especially crucial to note that about one in twenty-five children suffers from Separation Anxiety Disorder. If you think your child might be one of them, you need to seek the help of a medical professional.” See attached sidebar to learn more about Separation Anxiety Disorder.

          “It truly is critical to make sure your children are ready to go to camp before sending them, because if you don’t, you might find yourself stuck between a rock and a hard place,” confirms Patkin. “Leaving a too-anxious child at camp can cause real emotional harmand conversely, what your child sees as the ‘failure’ to stick it out if you let her come home early can haunt her for years to come. If you do realize after you’ve already dropped your child off and driven away that she’s not doing well, work with camp officials to determine whether staying or coming home early would cause less overall emotional damage.”

           Patkin especially wants to emphasize that children, and especially their emotional growth, are not one-size-fits-all. And if you’re in doubt as to whether or not to send in your child’s registration, he suggests waiting until she is begging you to go to camp, and not the other way around.

           Before sending your children away from home this summer, read on to learn how to spot separation anxiety and how you may be able to alleviate it if it appears, provided it isn’t severe:

How to Alleviate Non-Severe Separation Anxiety

Talk it over with your child. Before signing up for any camp or an away-from-home activity, talk to your child about it. Ask him how he’s feeling and what he thinks about these plans. Above all, be sure to acknowledge your child’s feelings as legitimate. Even if you don’t believe there’s any real reason for him to be upset, remember that his feelings and fears are very real in his own mind.

“It’s important not to be over-indulgent, but it’s also crucial that you not completely dismiss your child’s fears,” Patkin says. “In my case, adults were correct that there was no actual danger for me to worry about—but that didn’t banish my fears or prevent me from acting on them. It’s a good idea to let your child have some say in decision making—if he flat-out doesn’t want to go to camp, don’t force him. You might also consider giving him a choice—day camp as opposed to sleep-away, for example.”

Realize that some amount of separation anxiety is normal. Yes, listen to your child and give her wishes some weight. Also realize, though, that at some point you’re likely to hear some variation on the “Mom, Dad, don’t leave me—I’ll miss you!” theme from any youngster. The timing and duration vary, but every child experiences some level of stress when facing a separation from his or her loved ones—so there might be no need to panic. The fact is, no matter how independent or self-possessed your child is, chances are she’ll probably be reluctant to leave you. That’s normal.

“If you hear words of doubt coming from your camper’s mouth—especially as drop-off day approaches—don’t automatically pull the plug on the whole venture,” advises Dr.  Rankin. “Especially for overnight campers, spells of apprehension and homesickness often occur, which isn’t surprising, since your child loves you and isn’t used to being so far away from you. Yes, it’s always uncomfortable for parents when their kids are unhappy, but remember that you know your child best, so simply trust your instincts if you suspect that she’s more than just a temporarily unhappy camper.”

Look for causes. While almost every child does experience some degree of separation anxiety, these feelings don’t always originate within the child. They can also be caused or exacerbated by outside circumstances. If your child is feeling distressed for another reason, he’ll be in need of extra comfort and security which can easily lead to a stronger-than-usual desire to be with his parents in familiar surroundings. “Especially if separation anxiety, or its current severity, is abnormal, look for other things that might be causing these feelings,” Dr. Rankin instructs.

 “For example, a divorce, a recent or upcoming move, or even your stress that your child might be observing can trigger separation anxiety. If you suspect that something other than summer camp might be influencing your child’s feelings, don’t ignore the issue.”

Practice shorter separations. If your child is apprehensive about being away from you and from home, it makes sense to work your way up to longer separations. (Think about it this way—if you’re not an experienced runner, you wouldn’t jump straight into running a marathon, would you?) Depending on your child’s age and level of homesickness, practice short separations—maybe just an hour or two to start—and increase their duration, taking into account your child’s reactions.

“One of the many factors that played into my summer camp meltdown, I think, is that I really hadn’t spent too many nights away from home beforehand,” Patkin recalls. “I didn’t even like it when my parents left me overnight in our own home with a babysitter or relative, so of course I hadn’t sought out sleepovers. If I’d had more ‘practice’ before being left in another state for what was supposed to be four weeks, perhaps my reaction wouldn’t have been so severe or my family and I would have known that camp wasn’t a good idea to begin with.”

Stay calm and positive. You’ve probably noticed that negativity, pessimism, and worry tend to breed more of the same—and it should come as no surprise that this trend holds true when it comes to your children. If your prospective camper voices worries, acknowledge them, but don’t feed into them by adding your own apprehensions to the pile. (And certainly don’t bring up worrisome what-ifs yourself—for example, “I just don’t know how I’m going to make it a whole week without you here, Junior!”)

“During the days leading up to camp, it’s best to focus on its positive aspects,” shares Dr. Rankin. “Remind your child of how much fun she’ll have and what she’ll learn. And don’t make a big deal of drop-off—if you get emotional, your child is more likely to lose control too. Lastly, if you do receive an upset phone call, email, or letter, don’t make a fuss that your child can feed off of. Instead, try to talk to a counselor or camp administrator about your child’s homesickness before making a decision regarding how to proceed.”

Feed your child’s interests. Sometimes homesickness can be sparked by boredom and unhappiness—so don’t assume that just because you enjoyed science camp in your youth, for example, your child will too. It’s always a good idea to make sure that any camp you’re considering for your child is a good fit for him. After all, if he’s happy and engaged, his attention is more likely to be focused on what’s right in front of him, and not on what he’s missing.

“Granted, I was unsuited for sleep-away camp for many reasons, but I think the only reason that I lasted as long as I did, even though it was just three days, is because I was at a sports camp—and I loved sports,” recounts Patkin. “When I was on the ball field, I do remember actually having fun. Remember that camp is supposed to enrich your child and help him grow—if his daily activities aren’t capturing his attention, of course he’ll be more likely to long for you! I know that even today, when I’m on a business trip that’s not going well, I’m much more likely to want to come home sooner rather than later.”

Let your child take “home” with him. Your child may be traveling miles away, but there’s no reason why she needs to leave home behind altogether. Send familiar objects with her, such as a favorite stuffed animal, a small picture of you, and phone numbers. She’ll feel less cut off from everything that’s familiar, and will therefore be less likely to experience severe homesickness. It’s even better if she can go to camp with a friend from home. “Sending small objects with meaning can indeed remind your child that you love her and are thinking of her,” confirms Dr. Rankin, “but don’t go overboard. You don’t want her to be so focused on things she’s brought from home that she doesn’t get engaged in camp activities. For this reason, it can also be smart to wait a few days to send letters. For many children, contact from home is less likely to trigger homesickness if they have already established friends and interests in their new environment.”

Don’t be too quick to provide an out. When dealing with separation anxiety, this is often the hardest line of all for parents to walk. If your child is upset and emotional and begs to be with you, you’d need to have a heart of stone not to be affected. Many parents soon give in to their child’s pleading rather than endure their own resulting anguish!

“As a father myself, I completely understand why many people simply can’t stand seeing their children suffer from separation anxiety,” says Dr. Rankin. “After all, you’re hardwired to see to your child’s well-being and chances are, you’re going through some degree of separation anxiety yourself. (In fact, a quick Internet search will reveal numerous articles advising parents who are feeling distraught or off-balance due to the absence of their children!) It’s very important for your brain to remind your heart that if you give in too easily, you might prevent your child’s emotional growth. Ultimately, though, you know what’s best for your child—so if you truly feel that he’s in a bad situation, err on the side of caution. Again, this is why it’s so important to make the right decision regarding camp upfront—so that you can avoid causing your child to experience unnecessary anxiety.”          

“I believe that there are very few children who won’t at least feel a twinge of homesickness when overnight camp—or any significant separation—rolls around,” concludes Patkin. “But if you approach the situation positively and rationally and encourage your child to do the same, you’ll both be better prepared for the separation—and you will be better equipped to determine if your child’s anxiety levels aren’t normal or healthy.”

Separation Anxiety Disorder: The Basics

About one in twenty-five children suffers from Separation Anxiety Disorder, which goes beyond “normal” homesickness and can have long-lasting negative effects on your child’s development. And as a parent, it’s important for you to be familiar with the symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder so that you can identify it and take action if necessary. Children who suffer from Separation Anxiety Disorder can honestly believe that they will never see their parents again. Their fears may last for weeks or months rather than days, and may interfere with normal activities. Specifically, kids whose separation anxiety is severe may:

  • Worry that something might happen to you or other loved ones while you are separated
  • Suffer from nightmares
  • Manifest physical symptoms, such as a stomachache or a panic attack
  • Cling to you, especially in an “age-inappropriate” way
  • Refuse to go to a particular destination, such as school or camp

“Please trust me—I can tell you from personal experience that forcing separation on a child who suffers from Separation Anxiety Disorder can be disastrous,” confirms Patkin. “Even if you have the best of intentions by enrolling your son or daughter in camp, you may be doing much more harm than good. As I’ve said, my own traumatic camping experience drove me to the brink of inflicting harm on myself at the age of ten. If you suspect that your child might have Separation Anxiety Disorder, please seek the aid of a medical professional! It’s crucial to understand that this advice is meant for parents of children who are experiencing non-severe separation anxiety.”

Todd Patkin grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter.

Dr. Howard J. Rankin is the creator of www.scienceofyou.com <www.mmsend2.com>  and founder and president of the American Brain Association. He is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private psychotherapy practice, the Rankin Center for Neuroscience and Integrative Health, on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. He has written five books and coauthored two more, including the bestselling Inspired to Lose. His video and workbook The Five Secrets of Lifestyle Change were released in early 2011.