“But Mommy…why do I HAVE to go to camp?” Pick up any magazine in September and you will find many articles regarding “separation anxiety” and the first day of school. But
what about the first day of camp? Let’s face it – school is mandatory and kids know it. Camp is not. It’s not that young children don’t WANT to go to camp. They just don’t know what to expect.
Parents are surprised when their child, who was able to separate successfully during the school year, now has separation issues going to camp. Parents may think the level of their child’s anxiety should be less going to camp. Heck, it’s fun! There are no academic pressures. As a result, parents may not prepare their child appropriately for camp because they may think…“They’ll be fine.” Or, on the other hand, parents may be resistant about sending their children to camp and their feeling of anxiety may show through.
It’s very natural for young children to feel anxious when they say good-bye to their parents. We, as parents, are the barometers of our children’s anxiety. When you feel comfortable with a change, and your child believes that to be genuine, your child will feel comfortable with a change. Therefore, it is important for parents to set the right tone for separating with their child. Sometimes, reassuring words just aren’t enough. Telling your child to “have fun” while your eyes are welling up with tears will not exactly get the point across. If your child sees that Mommy is hesitant about him leaving, your child will not trust he will be safe at camp and will resist going.
So how do you set the tone for your child to experience a summer full of friendships, fun and new experiences? Here are some simple suggestions to help parents regarding the transition to camp.
1. Pick a camp that instills a sense of trust that your child will be safe, have fun and make friends. If you are not comfortable with the camp, neither will your child.
2. Visit the camp with your child. Let your child see the pool, arts & crafts room, nature center, etc. If this is not possible, show your child the website. Let them see pictures of children having fun and engaging in activities they enjoy. Most anxieties are a result of the “unknown.” Give them a visual explanation of what camp is like
3. Attend the Parent Orientation meeting to meet the directors and staff. Ask questions.
On the first day of camp:
1. Wake up early and have breakfast together. Answer questions and talk positively about the camp experience.
2. This may be the first time your child has ever been on a bus. If this is the case:
A. Introduce yourself and your child to the bus supervisor.
B. Let your child see you give the supervisor your cell phone number. It is a sense of assurance for your child to know the bus supervisor can get in touch with you immediately.
C. Establish the drop off/pick up routine the very first day. If your babysitter is responsible for drop off, let her take him to the bus the first day.
3. Develop a special “goodbye” ritual. This can be as simple as a special wave, silly tickles, etc.
4. Leave with a wave and a smile on your face (even if you do not feel like smiling). Do not linger if your child is having a hard time separating. Hand off your child physically to the bus counselor/group leader and walk away.
5. Call the camp if you need to check on your child. However, wait until mid-day. Give your child some transition time
6. Keep your normal routine. Your child will be home before you know it.
1. Get to the bus stop early! Most children who have separation issues fear mom or dad will not be there when they come back. Reinforce the fact that when they leave for camp, you will be there when they return.
2. Ask your child specific questions about the day. What animals did you see at nature? Who did you sit with during lunch?
3. Your child will be tired after camp. They will have a full day of swimming, running and playing. Get to sleep early and prepare them for another fun day ahead.
Just like separating for the first day of school in September, separating for camp may be a difficult transition time. However, it is a natural developmental process for both you and your child. Give it time and you will quickly see how excited your child will be every day after camp – making new friends, engaging in new activities and developing new accomplishments.
Linda Bond, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice and an administrator at Mount Tom Day Camp in New Rochelle.