How to deal with homesickness while at summer camp
If you prepare your camper to be out of their comfort zone, they can overcome and thrive
As a child growing up in rural Connecticut, our daughter Janet had always been a bit of a homebody. Possessing a rather shy and reserved personality, she was a cautious soul – content to stick close to her family and friends, unwilling to “put herself out there” in uncomfortable social settings.
When it was time for college, we had assumed Janet would stay close to home. But she was unexpectedly awarded a generous college scholarship that was too good to refuse. The University of Oklahoma wanted to recruit her as a French horn musician and was willing to foot the bill for Janet’s tuition.
Janet definitely experienced homesickness, but made it past her first couple of weeks of anxiety and distress and had one of the best times of her young adult life. Janet learned how to be independent and take care of herself. She quickly made a few friends that were also from out-of-state and who had been feeling a little lost, too.
Janet may have developed some resilience for coping with homesickness when she went to camp as a kid.
As a residential camper at both a Girl Scout camp and band camp, she had already practiced being on her own and being self-sufficient. Those early times away from her parents were difficult, but were learning opportunities that made the college experience much easier.
As a camp administrator, I have watched first-time residential campers struggle with homesickness as they are dropped off at camp for their first experience living away from home.
Some campers cry and hang on to their parents when it’s time to say goodbye. They are feeling vulnerable and afraid to be separated their loved ones. They just can’t imagine spending three weeks apart from their family. First-time campers are scared of the strange environment and a new daily routine. They are inevitably feeling their first pangs of homesickness.
In a word, homesickness is truly a misnomer. That’s because this terrible feeling really isn’t about home and it isn’t an illness. Homesickness is an emotional state that involves a choice – one that can either cripple us with fear or promote maturity and exponential character growth.
When homesickness hits hard, we can choose to be devastated by anxiety and depression, becoming physically and mentally debilitated. Or if we’ve been well prepared and aren’t surprised by these feelings when they arise, we can be excited about new opportunities and possibilities while overcoming our insecurities and weaknesses.
As parents of soon-to-be first-time campers, we need to prepare our children to understand that homesickness offers an exciting choice. To get past this obstacle, they need to learn to approach their feelings in a positive way and without fear. It’s a lot easier to learn healthy coping skills and meet a challenge with courage if we are not surprised by the unfamiliar and overwhelmed.
How do we teach those coping skills that will help overcome the distress of homesickness? First, tell your child that he or she can expect to feel afraid, and that those feelings are normal and common. Make sure they take something to camp that is familiar and comforting such as favorite blanket, book or toy. And suggest they stay active. Opportunities for physical activity (such as boating, swimming, hiking, or rock climbing) fully engage the body and reduce anxiety.
If your child has “quiet time” during the camp day, suggest they write their feelings in a journal or in a letter home. But be prepared if you receive that letter. It may contain a long list of complaints along with a dramatic description of their “dire circumstances.” Your child may plead for you to bring them home, but don’t give in.
Ultimately their complaints signal a stretch out of their comfort zone as they surmount new challenges. As your child begins to succeed on his or her own and learns to be a valued and contributing member of the camp community, they will enjoy a sense of belonging – becoming more secure and self-assured as their self-esteem soars.
It is significant to note that those campers that cry and feel homesick when they arrive at camp are the same campers that cry on the final day of the session because they don’t want to go home. They are having too much fun.
During the short camp session, their sense of self has been transformed. This is an asset gained through experience that serves them well their entire lives.
Research-based Positive Youth Development programs often encourage children to actively participate in camping opportunities, outdoor adventure programs and experiential curriculums. That’s because those experiences teach the many dimensions of resilience.
Summer camps promote healthy risk-taking, positive opportunities to try to succeed at new things, and chances for kids to build strong relationships with adults and peers while growing their self-confidence and self-efficacy.
A child with the chance to enjoy a residential summer camp experience may experience homesickness. But if they are prepared to be homesick, they will know how to cope and have the tools they need to believe in themselves, set goals and overcome the barriers to success.
Kathy Kearns is a freelance writer and the executive director of the Circle Program, a nonprofit organization that offers residential summer camp and year-round mentoring programs to underprivileged New Hampshire girls.