You are not alone if you are worried about sending your anxious child off to summer sleepaway camp. Separation anxiety is the earliest diagnosed anxiety disorder among young children and is prevalent in about 1-4 percent of youth.1
Sending your anxious child away to camp for many days at a time may feel overwhelming, yet you want your child to reap the benefits of summer camp.
Four tips to help quell your child’s worries and overcome their fears are:
1. Empathize with your child.
Empathizing with them is the first step, like any worry or anxiety your child may express. Empathizing communicates you hear them and normalizes the worry. For example, say, “It’s Ok to be a little worried about going to camp the first time. Most kids feel this way. Let’s see if together we can figure out ways to help you with what you are afraid of.”
If you discount, reject, or shame the child about their worries, things can get worse, like saying, “There’s nothing to be afraid of!” or “Don’t be such a baby. All kids go camp.”
2. Prepare Ahead of Time
- Sending a child away to a sleepaway camp is great for their development; to focus on being in nature, strengthen friendships, reduce screen time, and learn how to separate from parents. However, it is probably best if your child has practiced spending the night away from home prior to sending them to sleepaway camp.
Determine how your child tolerates spending the night away from home by dropping them off at a close friend or family member’s house for a sleepover. It is also likely more distressing for a parent if you are unaware of your child’s trouble being away from you until you drop them off at camp!
Practice separation imaginably or in the mind’s eye. This sort of mental practice augments the experience above. Guide the child through imagery about leaving home for a while and what they can expect from camp. For example, you can say, “When we say goodbye, leave, get in the car, and you see us drive away, you may start to feel really sad or even a little worried.”
Be sure in your mental practice you include some potentially challenging situations that may present themselves (eg, a peer problem, difficulty sleeping, not liking the food, not doing well in an activity/game). etc.).
After practicing the two things above, reinforce their problem-solving and coping efforts by writing down or recording their efforts. For example, they may conclude, “Being away from home is not so bad, and it is even fun! I handle it,” “Some things might bother me, but there are a lot more fun things about camp to look forward to. If things do bother me, I know what I can do to handle them,” and so on. These coping statements could be written down on cards or placed on an electronic device so the kid can carry them to camp.
- Build their confidence through verbal praise and excitement. Once your child has had a sleepover with a known friend or family member, praise them for being brave. Act engaged and excited when talking with them about spending the night away from home
- Managing your parental worries and anxieties is critically important. Worrying can be contagious, and kids can pick up on parents’ anxieties. The same strategies that work with your children can also help you. Additionally, we recommend this great parenting resource by Tamar Chansky.
3. Send Cards or Care Packages
It is normal for your child to miss you. It is developmentally appropriate for your child to have some worries about being apart from you for many days. Transitional objects, like a blanket or stuffed animal, can act as a way for your child to feel connected to you. Some children responded well to having a picture of the family at camp. Additionally, sending cards or care packages shows your child that you are thinking about them and can lead your child to feel less homeick.
4. Plan a Reward at the End of Camp
It is commonly known that the best way to increase desired behaviors is to reinforce them positively.two Your child will probably feel a mix of emotions upon you picking them up from camp- thrilled to be reunited, sad to leave friends or upset you sent them to camp. You can reward them after you pick them up from camp by going to get their favorite ice cream or restaurant, taking them to the beach or another preferred activity, or signing them up for another year of camp!
In conclusion, remember that anxiety and worry about going to sleepaway camp is not an anxiety disorder. Attending sleepaway camp is a sort of developmental milestone. These types of worries and anxieties are developmentally appropriate.
Feeling a little wary about new experiences is normal, and testing new waters can be intimidating. Meeting the challenge of facing new experiences with flexibility and hardiness is ultimately rewarding, and parents can help kids do exactly that.