Giving Summer Camp a Second Chance
How to help kids after a tough first summer away
My daughter’s first summer at sleepaway camp wasn’t easy. She felt homesick most of the time, especially when she woke up in the morning and at night after lights out.
During our one allotted phone call, my daughter cried the entire 10 minutes. After we hung up, I had to fight the urge to get in my car and drive to camp to retrieve her. But somehow we both made it through the four-week session.
When my daughter returned home from camp, she shared stories about her bunk-mates and all the fun activities she did. But when the camp director asked for a deposit for the following summer, she was reluctant to commit. Although she had fond memories of camp, she also remembered the stress she felt about being away. She wasn’t sure she wanted to put herself through those feelings again.
Why Kids May Have A Tough Time At Summer Camp
Eileen Kennedy-Moore, psychologist, speaker, and author of several books including Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friend says, “There are many reasons children may have a difficult time at camp including homesickness, illness (or) injury, and difficulties getting along with peers.”
Sometimes the reasons a child has trouble at camp have little to do with the camp at all. Missy Ruddick, director of Camp Timber Tops, explains, “Things that impact children at home can impact them at camp too, from difficulties happening at home, to not making connections in the bunk right away, to anxiety or emotional issues that follow a child wherever she goes.”
Adds Kennedy-Moore, “Parents cannot expect their child to magically turn into a different, easier kid at camp.”
Adding to these issues is the fact that many parents are reluctant to discuss their child’s at-home struggles with camp directors in advance for fear they will pre-judge their child. “By not being transparent with camp directors, parents do their children a disservice,” says Patti “The Camp Lady” Roberts, owner of Student Summers, a camp consultancy organization. “The only way camp directors can help a child deal with issues from bedwetting to a parent’s recent divorce is if they are informed.”
Figure Out What Went Wrong
After a challenging camp experience, parents may think the easiest thing to do is to switch camps, or not send the child back to camp at all. But as Kennedy-Moore explains, “If your child doesn’t go back to a camp, that’s the end of the story, and your child will conclude, ‘Camp is bad’ or ‘I can’t do camp.’”
A better approach is to look at it as a learning experience. First, find some positives. Ask your child, “What parts of camp did you like?” For example, my daughter loved most of the activities and her bunk-mates. She also felt proud because even though she was homesick, she did manage to stay for the full session.
Next, discuss the parts of camp your child found difficult. Maybe the camp was overly sporty, or they were too worried about a grandparent’s illness to have a good time. Kennedy-Moore suggests asking the child “what and how” questions to help pinpoint the problems. How was camp similar or different to what you expected? What kind of camp do you think might be a better fit for you? What might have helped things go better for you?
Come Up with A Plan
Even if parents believe the camp was not a good fit or that the staff didn’t handle something appropriately, a discussion with the camp directors can still be helpful. “Parents need to work with the camp directors to determine why the child had a difficult summer and see if the exact problems can be addressed head-on,” Ruddick says.
Be prepared to have a give and take with the camp directors. Talk about your issues, but also be prepared to listen to what the camp directors have to say. Camp directors have a lot of experience and can provide vital insight.
In many cases, the camp can make changes so the child has a better experience the following summer. Other times, it’s best to change camps or choose a different type of summer experience entirely. “Camp directors will be honest if they feel they can’t make the accommodations your child needs, or they think the child would be better off at a different camp,” Roberts says.
If parents do choose to send their child to a different camp, be forthcoming about the issues that happened the previous summer. “It’s important to inform camp staff about any difficulties your child is likely to encounter,” Kennedy-Moore says. “If they’re forewarned, camp staff can be better prepared to deal with these issues.”
Whether your child returns to the same camp or decides to try a new one, go in with a positive attitude. “Explain to your child that it’s very normal and completely understandable to be nervous after having had a bad experience,” Kennedy-Moore says. “Tell your child you are so proud of her for being willing to try again.”
Explain to your child why this summer will be better. Kennedy-Moore suggests helping your child redefine the narrative by saying something like, “I wasn’t ready for camp last year, but now I know what to expect, so I’m better prepared,” or “I prefer this type of camp to that type,” or even “I’m the kind of person who won’t let one bad experience stop me.”
Resist the urge to give your child an “out” before they get to camp; it sets them up for failure. “A parent should never say, ‘Just try it out and you can come home if you are not happy!’” Ruddick says. “Instead, tell children, ‘We know this is a great place for you. If you love it, you’ll go back for many years to come! If you don’t, you’ll be home in no time.’”
Finally, remember that no one is happy all of the time. Don’t overreact if you receive a lousy letter or you don’t see a smiling photo every day. Some kids avoid the photographer but are having a great time. And “snail mail” means that by the time the letter arrives, it’s already old news. The child could have been upset about their soccer game when he wrote the letter, and having a blast at the pool 20 minutes after they sealed the envelope.
For my daughter, it was a discussion with her camp directors that made her decide to give camp a second chance. To help her combat her homesickness, the directors suggested she have four phone calls instead of one. Just knowing that she could call home more often put my daughter at ease. While she still had some tough moments, she was much happier her second summer. So much so that she returned for many more years, eventually becoming a camp counselor herself.
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in parenting, teen issues, mental health, and wellness. She is a wife and mother of three children. To read more of her work visit www.randimazella.com.