Psychologically Speaking: Homesickness

Leaving home and heading off to camp can be an exciting and frightening experience for both new campers and their parents.

Dear Dr. Batya, My 10-year-old daughter is heading off to camp for the first time. She and I are very close and while I am excited by her going, from time to time I hear the hesitancy in her voice. I want to make this a successful experience for her as I loved camp and went for many years. I welcome your ideas. - D.L., Hashmonaim Leaving home and heading off to camp can be an exciting and yet sometimes frightening experience for both new campers and their parents. As a psychologist who was on the board of directors of a sleep-away summer camp for many years, I think one of the main problems the staff always had to deal with was the child who was homesick. If not taken care of effectively, it had the potential to be quite contagious, as others could imagine missing their parents as well. That said, homesickness is quite treatable and often even preventable. Part of the secret lies in dealing with issues long before your camper gets on the bus. If you have major concerns about your child going away, you may want to discuss them ahead of time with the camp director or with a professional who may be able to help you deal with the relevant issues. Here are a few suggestions to make things go a little more smoothly. Sit together with your daughter months before camp and talk about what type of camp she'd like to go to, what she hopes to take away from the experience, what her expectations are and what a typical day will be like. Let her know what to expect as best as you can. Most camps now have Web sites and looking at the pictures will give her some idea as to what to expect and enable her to be familiar with the camp even before she arrives. Make sure your daughter and you are in agreement with just which camp she would like to attend. This gives her some control and enables her to be an active participant in making choices that will help her to bond with the camping experience. Keep a calendar and count down such events as when you will make purchases, label clothes and head off to the bus. She can see how long she has until camp starts, and just how soon it will be until she'll head home again. A visual reminder not only makes it exciting but will show her that it really is time limited if she is at all apprehensive. Stickers to help decorate this calendar and putting it up in a prominent place in the house can help give the message that going to camp is a special event. Role-play experiences that may cause your daughter some concern. Encourage positive "self talk." What can she tell herself that will be helpful and get her through the moment? What can she do if she is lonely, if she misses you before bedtime, if she doesn't feel well? Now make sure you also spend time on how she may feel when she gets her first swimming badge, how special it will be to have a sleep-over every night, how she'll meet lots of new friends who she can be in touch with for the rest of her life. Make sure you share lots of your own experiences and get excited right along with her. Let her know that she has absolutely no reason to worry about you while she is away. Tell her you'll write to her a lot but that you'll be doing your usual things - working, chauffeuring, cooking, cleaning, etc. She won't be missing a thing. Let her also know that camp is lots of fun and she has no reason to worry about herself while at camp. The staff is well trained, can look after anything and everything and loves to be with kids. Suggest that she will always find someone on staff who will lovingly be there for her if she has any concerns, but let her know that you have lots of confidence in her. Point out how well she has done on other occasions. Remind her that it may take a few days before she feels really comfortable and knows the routine but that there are lots of children there who would love to be her friend. If you are at all apprehensive as a parent, make sure that you deal with your own concerns without involving your soon-to-be camper. Encourage letter writing. Make sure that you write her often and send her off with self-addressed stamped envelopes for you, her friends and other family members. Scatter a few notes and small surprises in her possessions and if you think she may want to keep a journal, encourage her to do so as long as it doesn't diminish her involvement at camp. Send along a disposable camera so she can remember to share some extra special moments when she returns. You may also want to send along a family picture and her favorite stuffed animal, which can be a great source of comfort. Phone calls home can be helpful for some children, but for others the sound of your voice may make them miss home all the more. Remember, as a parent, if you have a positive attitude, are relaxed and calm about sending your daughter off to have a great experience, she'll probably do just fine. You also will have an adjustment to make, so plan on how you will use some new-found time to be a bit more spontaneous and to take care of yourself. Better be careful, though, as before you know it, she'll be back home and you'll be dealing with the frenzy of getting ready for school. The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana. [email protected]