From missing mom to a fear of fitting in, overnight camp can challenge even the most resilient kids—and not just first timers. The pandemic has done a number on kids socially and emotionally, and many kids have skipped the past summer or two. Parents obviously want to help their kids thrive while away, but limited communication with campers (via emails, letters and the occasional phone call) can leave parents a bit lost as to how to help potentially struggling campers from afar. Getting in front of the problems before the bus leaves is the best way to help kids have an amazing summer away. Here’s how to do that:
Choose the right camp…director
Choose a camp that matches your child’s interests, and don’t let glowing recommendations and state-of-the-art amenities and activities tempt you—it really is about leadership, says Maplewood resident Britton Bitterman, who serves as Co-Director and owner of Camp Watitoh in the Berkshires, along with her husband Drew. “Don’t get mixed up with the “stuff. The most important thing you’re choosing as a parent is a camp director that’s concerned with raising your kids with your values. You’re looking for partners who are going to take good care of your kids. Period,” says Bitterman. Also, involve your child in this decision from the get-go, she says. “Kids have to feel like they have a voice.”
Connect with other campers
Worried your kids won’t find a friend they’ll click with? “Finding out if there are any meet and greets beforehand is a great way to help your camper feel comfortable from day one. Trying new things and meeting new people is the name of the game,” says Brian Pollack, LCSW, CEDS-S, founder and clinical director of Hilltop Behavioral Health in Summit. Winter bonding events (such as online pizza parties) and introductions to local campers go a long way in making that first day away a good one. Just don’t go rogue, advises Bitterman—let the camp help make social connections after getting to know your child a bit (a bad playdate could sour the entire summer). And encourage your child to be an enthusiastic participant—they’ll get out of it what they put in.
Go extra for older kids
It can be hard for an older tween or teen to crack a clique that’s been bunking together since forever. Before committing to a camp, ask what proportion of kids are new and how they acclimate them—and see if you feel good about their response, says Tracy Levine, Director of the non-profit organization One Happy Camper in NJ. Some camps lean heavily towards starting young, while others (usually choice or interest-based) draw older tweens and teens. And certain sessions may also have a greater portion of new campers. “It’s not going to be easy,” says Bitterman. Getting to know other campers before the summer starts is critical, and they’re going to have to do their part in fitting into the group. Even so, the first few days may be rough as old friends reconnect. Knowing it will be hard will help them push through.
Identify trusted confidants
Make sure your child knows who to turn to if things go awry, or they just need a little TLC, by identifying in advance who at camp can be a trusted adult for your child to confide in, says Levine. “Ideally your child would meet/interface with the person before the summer to start building rapport and trust. There is an increased focus on mental health at camp, and many camps have a social worker or psychologist on staff.” This go-to can be anyone from a head counselor to upper camper—some camps intentionally match experienced campers with young newbies to provide a touchstone and guide. And don’t be shy about selling it: You get to live with COLLEGE kids—how cool is that? (Well, not my college kid, but still).
Prep your fussy foodie
Does your child only eat pasta with butter? “Every sleep away camp works with picky eaters and understands the difficulty that many of these children can face,” says Pollack. To help, let the camp know about your child’s specific eating concerns (ie: Sensory issues? Flavor-phobic?) so they can navigate mealtime distress discreetly, and ask about camp favorites so you can gradually introduce those foods prior to send off. Also find out about everyday alternatives if Taco Tuesday is a no-go—just knowing there are safe choices can go a long way towards making your child (and you) less stressed. “Finding foods that work and help your child avoid worry is key to the overall camp experience,” he says. And don’t make it weird with daily calls about their eating habits. Pollack is right: “Your child is not going to starve.”
Don’t obsess over illness
“Almost every camper has something —a health issue, an allergy etc.—so it’s very par for the course at camp,” says Levine. The hotspot at dinner is the line for meds. Even more complicated conditions like diabetes and Crohn’s can typically be handled with discretion by on-staff medical professionals. Anxious? “Talk with a health center representative for camp in advance to ensure you feel comfortable with the protocols in place,” she says, “and plan early regarding any prescription medications. Camps often require that you order from a specific provider and/or have the medications bubble-packed in a special way.”
Rally risk-averse kids
Cautious kids may need a pre-camp pep talk. “Looking at all of the activities and discussing the amazing opportunities available with your child before camp begins—and even while registering for the summer—is a great opportunity to build a conversation that helps set the stage for growth and learning,” says Pollack. Remind them of all the things they love but were initially anxious about (from ice skating to soccer)—and encourage them to think about this when they face something new. When choosing a camp, it also pays to explore camp policies (are kids allowed to sit out?) and the mix of set bunk activities vs. camper’s choice, and what mix you think is best for your child. “You’ll be amazed that as your child gets more comfortable at camp and is encouraged by peers and counselors, they get more adventurous and willing to go outside their comfort zone,” says Levine.
Stop stressing…at least don’t stress out loud
It’s hard, but parents need to filter their own anxiety, and avoid projecting their thoughts and feelings onto their kids. “The majority of their worries aren’t even what kids are worried about,” says Bitterman, noting that parents should be conscious of the words they use leading up to camp. Don’t put ideas into their head. Don’t make things seem ‘final’ (ie: this is your last dinner before camp). Do go bananas decorating their bunk. Don’t overstate how much you’re going to miss them (even if you’re a mess inside). And when they’re at camp, don’t share all the fun things you’ve been doing in their absence, and instead focus on camp. “FOMO is a huge issue,” she says.
It’s ok to be homesick—really!
“The goal isn’t to get a child to not be nervous or homesick (those are very natural feelings) but rather prepare and strategize on how they will handle it when it does arise,” says Levine. Any child—new to camp or not—may come down with a case of the missing home blues. Even if they’re having fun. “It’s ok to be homesick and happy. It’s ok to have mixed emotions,” says Bitterman. What’s really important is that you normalize homesickness—so keep it light, casual, ‘you got this’ when discussing how to manage their feelings, whether it’s to talk to a trusted adult or friend, write a letter, read a book, play a game, or whatever helps them ride it out. Most of all, don’t ever tell your child that if they’re not happy you’ll come pick them up. “You need to trust that the majority of campers are successes,” says Bitterman, and know that the growth and resilience that comes from dealing with challenges will be worth it. “You’re giving them a gift.”
—Jennifer Kantor is an education, parenting and lifestyle writer and a Maplewood mom of two.