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Homesickness can overshadow the joys of a child's summer camp experience, but support from camp counselors and parents can help children cope with this problem. To help a homesick child, parents must be sympathetic and at the same time set limits. In the long run, working through homesickness can better equip children to cope with future separations and adjustments to new situations.
Why Children Get Homesick
Homesickness is often caused by anxiety over separation from parents. Although the problem is most common among first-time campers, especially those attending sleep-away camps, even experienced campers can be affected.
What Parents Can Do:
- Keep connections to home. A child can be reassured through letters, or "care" packages of books, baseball cards or other treats from home. A teddy bear, toy or other special item from home can be of particular comfort to a younger child. It is not advisable to send a beloved toy since the child could be upset if it was lost or broken. Some camps have the capability to stay connected via e-mail. Parents should be careful about having these virtual "calls" and "visits" interfere with adjustment.
- Make the separation gradual. Slowly getting the child used to being away is generally helpful for homesickness. If possible, parents should telephone the child daily at the same time for a few days, gradually reducing the frequency and length of calls. During the call, parents can acknowledge their child's fears, but also reinforce their pride in the child's being in camp and his or her achievement in activities. Parents should also keep in mind that one or two dramatic letters or calls indicating homesickness may be an exaggeration and a natural part of the adjustment. Being patient is often the solution. The child who hated camp the first week may be the same child who begs to go back next summer.
- Monitor their own separation difficulties. Parents should be sensitive to their own anxiety about the separation. Children easily can pick up a parent's worry and feel unsure about going off on their own.
- Enlist the help of siblings. If older siblings are attending the same camp, parents can make arrangements for visual contact and a few minutes for the children to talk each day. This helps reassure the homesick child but does not cast the older child as a caretaker -- a situation that can cause resentment.
- Work with camp staff. Camp counselors can have an important role in the adjustment process. They can ease the adjustment by preventing teasing and by encouraging a child to participate in activities. If a child is having extreme difficulty, parents should be sure there is no objective reason for the child's unhappiness such as scapegoating by other children or counselors, or a bad experience with an activity.
- Take the child home. In some circumstances the camp and camper are a bad fit and the child needs to return home. Structuring the remaining time at home is key to keeping the child productive and minimizing any blows to his self-esteem. Rather than portray the situation as a defeat, it can be discussed as a challenging experience that was worth exploring. Talking specifically about what worked or did not work can be beneficial for helping the child handle future camp-like experiences. Parents should also be sensitive to any emerging anxiety issues that may warrant further evaluation .
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