Updated: Mar 29
Advice from a therapist, educator, and Mom of 3 who spent 5 years on the director team of one of the largest overnight camps in all of North America.
The school bus pulls away with the last of your kids, you take a deep breath, excited to jump into work, or piles of laundry, or even your bed! Then your email box dings and it’s camp! What the what? Registration is opening up now for this summer. The summer is more than ten months away and I still have sand in my car from their duffels last month! Ugh! Cue the overwhelm. Well, you don’t want to miss a spot for your kids, so you do your research, you talk to your kid(s) and you sign them up for their camp of choice. Now you can take a deep breath and enjoy school being back in session with no concern for camp until the paperwork comes out sometime in late winter, right? Well… maybe not.
Some kids start to get nervous about camp the minute it’s spoken of in your house. Some kids may refuse to talk about it all, leaving you wondering if you should force the issue. Some kids talk about nothing except their excitement about going until 24 hours before when they are reduced to a puddle of tears and tell you they are not going!
What is a parent supposed to do?
I have had hundreds of these conversations with parents and later with their kids when I was a camp professional. Today, as part of FAAB Consulting training services, every spring and early summer I train hundreds of camp staff from close to a hundred camps. One of the biggest topics that comes up when we discuss emotional health and well-being is, you guessed it, homesickness!
I mention this because I want you to know that homesickness is common! In fact, it’s completely logical and rational. If you are reading this I’m sure you are an awesome, loving parent and why wouldn’t your kid(s) miss you when they go away? So if this is normal and even rational, how do we get rid of it? That’s easy! We don’t! You may find yourself shaking your head and wondering why you are reading this blog. Stick with me, I promise it will be worth it!
As an educator with over two decades working with kids, teens, and parents and as a therapist, one of my biggest “life lessons” I share with anyone who will listen is that humans are complicated, intricate, awesome beings. This means that we can have more than one emotion at a time. We may even have a big old pile of them, especially during a big transition such as getting on a bus for overnight camp.
It is not our job as loving caregivers to get rid of homesickness. That may not be possible. It is our job to reassure our campers that it makes sense to miss us and we will miss them, too. This important sentence is validating their feelings, so they don’t panic about the feeling itself. We don’t, however, want to expand much on how or why we will miss them, what they will miss at home. Keep it short and sweet: “I will miss you too” is just fine. Then… we want to include the life lesson, that they can miss us, they can miss home, AND they can have a good time. This is the perfect spot to remind them of all of those activities or bunkmates they are excited about.
In my house, it would sound something like, “I’m sure you may miss me at some point, who wouldn’t, I’m awesome (cue rolling eyes!). I will miss you too. I’m also so excited for you to get to water ski, kayak, and play your favorite sports with your friends. Remember you can miss me and have so much fun!”
“I get it, this is a big transition, I’m sure it will be hard at times AND I know you can do it. I can’t wait to hear what you think about this special creative arts camp. I wonder what style you’ll like best?”
Your child may also want a “homesickness plan.” How will you know? Ask them. “Would you like to put together a plan of things that may help when you’re feeling homesick?” Two of my three kids like this support and one of my kids would rather not delve too deeply into this discussion, they feel it makes things worse. So we won’t do this type of prep until we are actually packing the bags! That’s why I always ask instead of assuming.
Here are some things that have helped the thousands of campers I have supported throughout the years:
1. A bag to keep all of the letters in that they get from home to reread often. (Tip, start sending letters to camp a couple of weeks in advance to ensure they have arrived by the first day! You can even pack a couple for the first day in their bags with directions on them!)
2. A small photo album with loved ones, including pets.
3. Comforts of home including “lovies” that they need for a good night’s sleep (even older kids may want these, it’s more common than you think!)
4. Role Play telling a counselor if they need some support and if they don’t feel heard make sure they know whom to talk to next. Is it a unit head, a supervisor, or a director? Talk this through with your child and make sure they know who “the helpers” are at their camp!
5. Pack a little flashlight, reading light, or tap light to keep on close to their bed if they are scared of the dark.
6. Include your camper as you create a thorough plan with the camp if they need some assistance with any sort of additional need including night wetting, medical needs, and social, emotional or behavioral support. This is important for “camper confidence and independence” as well.
7. If your child is persistently showing anxiety about homesickness, or if your child had a challenging summer in the past, set up a meeting with your camp including your child so they can hear directly from the staff how homesickness is supported.
What NOT to do:
1. Don’t make assumptions and pack the suggested items without asking your child, and here’s why: Yes, I’ve seen many kids love having photos at camp, and I’ve seen other kids who find they encourage those homesick feelings and make them feel worse! This is why this process should be collaborative with your child and the camp if needed.
2. Do not, under any circumstance, tell your child that you will come to get them if they are homesick! This will backfire, I’ve seen it happen more times than I can count. The child may fixate on this promise, and not fully allow themselves to acclimate to camp. Instead, offer reassurance that even if it feels hard at first, they are an awesome kid and they can do this! If they continue to ask “what if” questions, include one of the camp leadership in that conversation so they know what type of support the camp has to offer.
3. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. For example, if your camp has a strict policy against camper phone calls, don’t promise that they can call you. Instead, practice writing letters and role play how to ask camp leadership, “the helpers,” for support if they are struggling for any reason.
Some reassurance from a former camp pro! I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen campers refuse to get on the camp bus and have the summer of their lifetimes after their stressed-out parents drive them up instead. I’ve had a kid or two in my own household cry almost non-stop for 24 hours leading up to camp, making me wonder if I had a clue what I was doing (even as a teacher/therapist/former camp professional) and then find out that they smiled from the moment they got to camp! I’ve seen campers have a tough summer with pretty frequent homesickness, but also some great moments come back a year older with hardly any homesickness! And on rare occasions, I’ve also been the camp professional who met with a child and parent and ultimately suggested they wait another year for overnight camp. This is why sending your child to a camp where the leadership staff is accessible and supportive really matters!
Want more camp prep insider info from a former camp pro? Grab lifetime access to my webinar, “Camp Prep for Parents!” This popular webinar includes how to prepare your child emotionally for camp, how to practice independent skills throughout the year, and the ins and out of packing those duffels! Purchase your access today:
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