Homesick at Summer Camp
I was a summer camp kid. I went to my first two week sleep over camp when I was nine. I’m not sure if I was homesick the whole time. I do very clearly remember sitting on the steps of my cabin with my camp counsellor talking about it. I don’t remember what he said or how much it helped or didn’t help. I did go back the next year and several more after that. All told I was a camper for seven years and then camp staff for another two years.
Camp for me was about sailing, archery and capture the flag. In later years it became about canoeing. At summer camp I learned how to do all of those things, plus rowing, kayaking, skin diving and swimming. Ultimately I learned how to teach all of those skills and started the process of earning my lifeguarding certifications. I learned how to clean a cabin, rig a sailboat, write letters to my parents, deal with multiple bee stings at once, jump off of cliffs into water without getting a wedgie and I learned how to cope with being away from my home and my parents.
We haven’t yet sent any of our kids away to overnight summer camp. My partner and I had different experiences and different levels of homesickness at summer camp so the discussion about when / whether to send our girls to camp will be one tied to our own childhood experiences and emotions.
Our two oldest daughters do go away to Nanny Camp each summer for a week where they hang out with my mum and she takes them on all sorts of adventures. Sometimes those trips are tacked on to other road trips before hand and for two years running we have had to deal with homesick kids. I say we, but it hasn’t actually been me in either case. Last year my mum was the point person and we had the sorrowful phone calls. This year it has been my partner dealing with a homesick kid because the week before Nanny Camp is a week with my partner and her parents.
What is Homesickness?
Christopher Thurber writes about homesickness as “distress and functional impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home and attachment objects such as parents.” Homesickness is not a phenomenon solely associated with summer camp. Adults and kids alike are prone to homesickness. We might miss our parents, it could also be caused by missing friends and familiar surroundings. Many young adults experience homesickness when they leave home for higher education. Kids and adults suffering from homesickness will experience sadness and varying degrees of anxiety about being away from home.
Thurber has found that while around 80% of kids at summer camp suffering from homesickness get through it in a matter of days, there are just under 20% of kids experience significant distress, with 6% suffering from severe homesickness when away at camp. These kids will be homesick every day that they are away.
Tips to help your homesick child build coping strategies and lead them to greater independence.Click To Tweet
How to Help Kids Manage Homesickness?
The challenge for us as parents is that we typically are not with our kids, whether they are at summer camp or college when they experience homesickness. We want to be there to support and help our kids. We don’t like to see or hear our kids in emotional distress. Our desire is often to go and rescue our child or give them some of what we think they need – us. Thurber, who seems to be the pre-eminent researcher on homesickness, suggests that might not be the best approach. He says “telephone calls, and to a lesser extent instant messaging, exacerbate homesickness during relatively short stays away from home.” He suggests that this real-time contact cuts into the homesick child’s growing independence. Thurber actually suggests that we not engage in this kind of contact with our child when they are away. He also warns against going to pick them up early to resolve their homesickness.
Thurber instead says to focus on prevention.
- Involve kids in the decision to spend time away – decision control seems to help
- Educate kids about homesickness – let them know it is normal
- Talk about coping strategies in advance (letter writing, talking/playing with friends, etc.)
- Practice being away from home for progressively longer periods (sleepovers, week with grandparents)
- Practice writing letters and provide pre-addressed, stamped envelopes with writing paper
- Research the new place together – read about it and look at pictures online
- Avoid expressing your own anxiety about their trip – don’t give them something else to worry about
Read Gordon Korman’s I Want to Go Home together – OK , this isn’t actually advice from researchers. It is just a funny book about a kid who is homesick and writes all kinds of crazy letters home to his parents to try and get extracted from camp. It is the book I always think of when I think about homesickness. I think I still have my copy of the book from when I was a teen.
How to Manage Your Homesickness
Adults also experience homesickness and many of the same tips for kids will work for adults. It helps to focus on where you are and what you are doing and limit your contact with home. If you have moved to a new city or country or if you have moved away for school, focus on learning about your new environment. Look for opportunities to integrate yourself and make connections with people in your new community. Join a sports association, volunteer, eat lunch with new work colleagues, have coffee with classmates – Keep yourself busy to limit the amount of time you have by yourself to think about home.
Building Resilience and Independence
We all experience homesickness and teaching our kids strategies to manage their feelings of homesickness can help them to develop coping skills that will last them a lifetime. It is the goal of every parent to raise kids up to be independent adults. Being independent means moving out of our basements by the time they are 40.
You can help your kids develop their confidence and independence by providing them with opportunities to spend time away from home. Arranging sleepovers at friends and relatives homes, camping trips with you and with friends, weeks visiting grandparents on their own and residential camps can all provide opportunities to build and practice these coping skills and strategies over time.
Teaching these skills have an added bonus for us as parents – child-free nights and even weeks at a time means that we build skills to manage our own separation anxiety. This of course is followed by the opportunity to go out after dark and get out of bed when you feel like it an not when your kids jump on you at the crack of dawn.
This page contains an affiliate link. If you guess which one it is and buy the book, I get a commission for recommending something that will make you laugh. So really we both win.