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HOW TO HELP CAMPERS & PARENTS DEAL WITH HOMESICKNESS

by Myra Pravda, RN, MSN

As a camp professional, you are often asked by parents, "What do you do if my child gets homesick?" Do you tell parents what they need to know--or merely tell them what they want to hear?

Many camp directors reassure parents by saying they have a well-qualified staff. They tell parents that homesick feelings are normal, and that their camp provides a safe and healthy environment. These general statements are effective, but you can offer parents--and your campers--much more by providing specific suggestions to help prevent homesickness and convey information on how your staff is trained to handle homesick children.

Camp directors need to be informed about homesickness and be comfortable discussing the topic with parents and children. For many children, going away to camp is the first and longest time they will be away from home on their own. Separation from parents is one of the strongest fears in childhood, but as children grow older, they show decreasing sensitivity to separation stressors, suggesting that separation anxiety is developmental in nature. Keep this in mind when talking to children.

A recent study by Christopher Thurber (Managing Homesickness at Residential Summer Camps, Compasspoint, 8 [4], 8-11, 1995) identified risk and protection factors related to homesickness:

Risk factors:

Protection factors:

Looking at this information, camp directors can begin to address the issue of homesickness when parents sign their child up for that first session. By asking some questions suggested by Thurber, the camp director can begin to assess how many risk and protective factors are present in the camper. This information will assist the director in offering advice and helpful hints to parents and develop a plan for the child at camp.

Camp directors can focus on homesickness in two ways: first, by aiding parents in preparing their child for camp; and secondly, by educating and training the camp staff to effectively manage homesick feelings at camp. (Pravda, 1995. "Homesickness: Dispelling the Myths, Camping Magazine, 67, 18-20.)

The camp director can make suggestions in person or through a written letter addressed to parents. All first-time campers and their parents would benefit from some advice about preparing for camp. The following are some helpful hints for parents to assist in preparing their children for an overnight camp experience:

Read books about going to overnight camp.

There are many books available for parents about camp, but there are not many books available for children to read that describe the overnight camp experience. That is one of the reasons I co-authored Off to Camp. Another helpful children's book is Pinky and Rex Go To Camp by J. Howe, which is about choosing a camp. Camp directors and parents should read these books before suggesting them to the child. This will enable them to discuss the camp experience with the child and refer to some of the issues raised in the books.

Talk with other parents to learn from their experiences.

Refer parents to others in their community who have attended your camp. Have them meet or talk on the phone. If the children can also meet, they might be able to get together. Even if they are not the same age, it is nice for them to know someone at camp. You might want to start a big brother/big sister program at your camp.

Encourage parents to help the child care for her/himself.

The child should be able to pick out her/his clothes, help pack, learn to make a bed with clean sheets, set the table, and, if on medication, be responsible to take it at the appropriate time.

Discuss communication at camp.

Our society is very telephone oriented. If your camp has a policy of no telephone calls home, inform parents and discuss how they can communicate with their child at camp. Many camps accept faxes and e-mail. Inform parents if you offer this.

Children should communicate via the mail. Parents should prepare children for letter writing by providing their camper with addressed, stamped envelopes and postcards. Suggest that parents write about the weather, the garden, their work, and local sports teams. They can send the comics or sports pages from local papers, a sibling's drawing, a cute postcard, or an activity book. Reinforce the idea that receiving mail lets the child know the parent is thinking about them and loves them.

Inform parents that the letters they receive from the camper might be brief. Remind them of the camp routine. Other letters may give mixed signals. Remind parents about the normal adjustment to camp, and that mail is often received several days after it is written.

Homesick feelings are normal in adjusting to a new environment.

Parents should encourage the child to sleep over several different friends' home and then spend a week-end with a friend. When the child returns home, the parents would discuss the child's adjustment and feelings.

 

Parents need to prepare themselves for the separation.

Reassure anxious parents they have chosen a safe camp and their child will be well cared for. Discuss your staff orientation program. Parents need to know they will also go through a separation process.

The second step in addressing homesickness is preparing the camp staff. The staff should be taught growth and development characteristics of the age group in which they are working, to enable them to help the child in an age-appropriate manner. At staff orientation, offer some of the following interventions:

Help all campers adapt to the camp environment and routine.

Remember that homesick feelings don't just happen to the first time camper. New Campers and staff have more of an adjustment to camp than returning campers and staff, but remember that each year is different. Returning staff many have new roles, different units, different responsibilities. Returning campers envision camp as it was the previous year. Their counselor may be different; perhaps not all their friends returned. Camp is an adjustment for everyone.

Review daily camp schedules.

Always tell campers what is going to happen next. Go over camp and cabin rules, schedules, and programs several times. Camp is new and often, children don't hear what is being said. Repeat important information. Children thrive on routine.

Acknowledge and validate campers' feelings.

Children need permission to express their feelings. It's okay to talk about home, Mom, Dad, family. Often, staff think if the subject of home is not addressed, the camper will not think about it, leaving the child to internalize feelings. This often makes the situation worse.

Have staff call bunk meetings to discuss feelings.

Counselors can read books about going to camp to their campers, and discuss how their camp is different from or similar to the camp in the book. Use the book as a lead-in to discuss homesick feelings.

Encourage campers to take one day at a time.

Predict success, even if it is short term. Review the progress the camper is making.

Advise the campers to write home.

Encourage them to tell their family how they are feeling and what progress they are making.

Homesick feelings vary at different times of day.

Homesick feelings are more prevalent during meals, free time, rest period, and at night. These are the most important times for staff to be available to campers.

Do not ignore a child's physical complaints.

When anxious, upset, or feeling stress, a child's body reacts in a variety of ways. Increased stomach acid can cause stomach aches. Muscle tightness might cause body aches. Crying can cause headaches. Somatic complaints should be evaluated by the camp nurse.

For the camper who has a more difficult adjustment to camp, the next step is to work out an individualized plan. Encourage counselors to ask for help from other camp personnel (e.g., unit head, camp nurse, assistant director, director) and problem-solve. Acquire information about the camper, such as the child's behavior at camp, new and old friends, likes and dislikes, and the home situation. It may be necessary to contact parents for suggestions. The plan might involve the intervention of one person who takes a special interest in the camper, or it could involve many other staff members. Special care must be given not to alienate the child from other campers or camp activities.

The final area to address in helping a child adjust to camp is follow-up. At the end of the session, the camp director, counselor, or unit head should praise the child for being at camp, learning new skills, and being able to take care of themselves. This will enable the child to grow, gain new insights, successfully cope with the separation from home and family, and benefit from this very special and positive experience called camp.


Myra Pravda, a camp nurse and clinical nurse specializing in parent-child health, co-authored Off to Camp (JSP Publishing, Cincinnati.) She is chair of the Association of Camp Nurses and speaks on camp health issues at local, state, and national meetings.


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