Take Control of Summer Camp Worries
Date: May 1, 2012
You've worried about what your children eat and how much they sleep since they were babies. You've kept them clean, protected them from injury, and made sure they have safe opportunities to learn and grow. If your kids are going to sleep-away camp this summer, you may be wrestling with worries and what-ifs: What if she doesn't eat? What if he wets the bed? Will he put on clean underwear? What if the other kids are cliquish or mean? Will the camp director call me if she's miserable?
In new situations, there are many unknowns, and it is easy to let them get the best of you. You may worry that kids won't be able to handle routine tasks like taking a shower, brushing their teeth or getting dressed. Because parents focus so much on kids' needs, it's hard to step back and let kids take care of themselves.
Why parents worry
"Much of our anxiety as parents stems from the fact that there are so many things we cannot control in our children's lives," says Paul Donahue, clinical psychologist and author of Parenting Without Fear: Letting Go of Worry and Focusing on What Really Matters.
Our protective instincts keep us on edge. It is difficult to acknowledge we can't completely protect our kids. Sometimes we have to trust others to care for our kids, and trust our kids to look out for themselves. We fear what might go wrong when we aren't there to supervise.
Fear of letting go also can be driven by our own uncertainty about who we are without our children, and what we'll do while they're away. Although many parents feel overscheduled and exhausted by kids' countless activities, we also thrive on the crazy busy-ness kids bring to our lives. Without baseball practice, piano lessons, carpool, family dinners, bedtime routines and movie night, our lives would be slower and saner and ... emptier.
How to stop it
Don't let summer camp worries hold you hostage. Use them as an opportunity to confront your own needs for safety, control and closeness. Here's how:
Step back. Anxieties have a way of sucking you in. Your thoughts and emotions may be swirling. Get out of the eye of the storm and reflect on your feelings. What, exactly, are your worries? Write them down so you can face them head on.
Question your assumptions. Fears may be fueled by irrational beliefs. Kids don't suffer serious malnutrition from weeklong candy binges. And wearing dirty clothes won't kill them. Concerned your temperamental child won't fit in socially? Allow for the possibility she'll find buddies to hang out with all on her own. Don't let your beliefs limit your kids' potential.
Keep goals in mind. Ultimately, parents want kids to become self-reliant, Donahue says, and building self-reliance requires parents do less, not more, for their kids. Camp allows kids to make new friends, try fun experiences, explore nature, and build competence and independence. Camp is the time for kids to stretch beyond their comfort zones.
Have a plan. Keep anxieties in control by planning how you'll use your newfound free time. Schedule special time with siblings who aren't away. Plan a romantic date or overnight getaway with your spouse. Learn something new or catch up on your favorite shows. You deserve a change of pace, too.
Share stories. One sure-fire way to limit anxiety is to remember and share with your kids the fun times you had at camp. Tell them where you went and what you loved most. Maybe you loved telling campfire stories or were an archery expert. The time you flipped your canoe and got sopping wet in the lake shouldn't be a secret. Your kids will love to hear about your camp adventures as they embark on their own.
Stay connected. The kids will be gone, but they won't be forgotten. Find fun postcards, print pictures of family pets and collect care-package items to send. Be creative and have fun. Getting mail from home makes kids feel special. But resist the urge to call and check on them; give kids space. Be sure you pack supplies for kids to send letters home. They'll want to share their experiences and you'll treasure their letters forever.
It's likely many of your cherished childhood memories involve nature, new friends, and time to explore on your own. Summer camp offers all these opportunities and more. It's OK if kids get dirty, eat too much sugar or lose their swim goggles somewhere along the way. Really.
Heidi Smith Luedtke is a psychologist turned freelance writer. She also blogs about parenting as a leadership experience at LeadingMama.com.