Day campers can get homesick

Many parents may be surprised to learn that children can experience homesickness even when they're only away from home for a short time: at school, at a friend's house and, yes, at day camp.

Posted Updated
Summer camp / camp counselor
Cathy Ashby (Carolina Parent contributing writer)

Sleep-away camp and homesickness share a long history. Tales of overnight campers who endure – and frequently overcome – homesickness abound, but children can also experience homesickness at other times and in other situations. Think slumber parties, vacations with grandparents and school field trips.

Many parents may be surprised to learn that children can experience homesickness even when they're only away from home for a short time: at school, at a friend's house and, yes, at day camp.

Feelings of homesickness vary in intensity from child to child and from situation to situation. Because these feelings are closely linked to anxiety – often about being in new places, meeting new people and trying new things – homesick children may experience the same physiological signals that anxiety can trigger, from upset stomach to an increased heart rate. Whether they're away from home for a few hours or a few days, truly homesick children experience a longing for home that manifests itself in a variety of physical and emotional ways.

If your child has voiced concern about attending day camp or if you suspect that your child may be prone to anxious, homesick feelings, preparation is key.

Alyson Gondek, a co-director of Camp Woodmont in northern Georgia, offers several suggestions to help stop homesickness before it starts:

  • Explain to your children that occasional feelings of homesickness are normal. Suggest that when they feel homesick they should get involved with an activity or talk with a friend.
  • Let them know that camp is a big part of the growing up process and that you are proud of them for being so mature.
  • Make sure they know that they can talk with their counselors or camp leaders about any problem they encounter. They'll feel better knowing they have someone to count on when you're not available.
Advice from the American Camping Association also helps parents prepare their children for a homesickness-free summer. According to the group's Web site, parents should consider the following suggestions:
  • Involve your child in the process of choosing a camp. The more the child owns the decision, the more comfortable the child will feel being at camp.
  • Discuss what camp will be like before your child attends the program.
  • Don't bribe. Linking a successful experience at camp with a material object sends the wrong message. The reward should be your child's new-found confidence and independence.

If your child is already participating in a summer program and is complaining about homesickness or anxiety-related symptoms, conversations with the camp director and your child's counselor or instructor are in order. These people are your child's first line of defense against homesickness. They can help involve your child in more activities and make sure he or she has made plenty of friends.

They can also tell you if something else seems to be going on – something that is causing or exacerbating the homesickness. For example, there may be an activity or skill that your daughter is having trouble mastering, or maybe your son has a crush on someone who doesn't return his feelings. As soon as you determine what the problems are, you and the camp staff can begin working with your child to improve the situation.

Other homesickness triggers have little to do with the camp itself. Major changes or troubles at home, from divorce to family illness, can precipitate increased levels of anxiety and nervousness, leading to homesickness. Children who are dealing with extra stressors like these can still enjoy summer camp, but they made need extra help from the camp staff to stay involved. Likewise, children who are normally very shy or self-conscious may need extra attention.

Just as you prepare your child to recognize and cope with homesick feelings, you should prepare your child's camp counselors and instructors to recognize and cope with your child's unique emotions. They'll do their best work if you provide them with details about potential problems.

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