Summer camp can be an amazing experience full of new adventures, lasting friendships, and lifelong memories. But for many kids and teens, excitement about camp is often mixed with anxiety about being away from home. Homesickness is very common at overnight camp. According to research, 83% of campers report feeling homesick on at least one day of camp.
While most cases of homesickness are mild and temporary, it can still be extremely distressing for campers. Severe homesickness that doesn’t resolve can ruin the camp experience and force kids to leave camp early.
The good news is that homesickness is very preventable and treatable if handled appropriately. This comprehensive guide will provide campers, parents, and camp staff with useful strategies to minimize homesickness.
Homesickness is defined as distress and functional impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home and attachment figures like parents. It is characterized by:
- Negative emotions like sadness, anxiety, irritability, loneliness
- Thoughts of home and family
- Difficulty adjusting to the new environment
- Physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, fatigue
- Withdrawal from social activities
- Loss of appetite, insomnia
Homesickness is different from missing home. Nearly all kids miss home to some degree while at camp, but homesickness interferes with their ability to participate and enjoy camp.
Homesickness is a very normal part of growing up and becoming more independent. It happens when kids are separated from their primary attachments figures, the people they rely on most for comfort and security.
According to child psychologist Chris Thurber, “Homesickness is the natural consequence of leaving home and entering unfamiliar surroundings.”
While homesickness can happen at any age, it peaks between ages 8-14 when kids are old enough to understand the separation from home but still rely heavily on parents for support. Girls tend to experience more severe homesickness than boys on average. First-time campers are also more susceptible than returning campers.
Though unpleasant, experts agree that mastering separation is an important developmental milestone on the road to maturity and self-sufficiency. As child psychologist Michael Thompson says, “Homesickness is really a wonderful opportunity to realize that home is inside you.”
Preparing for Camp
Taking steps to prepare kids for time away from home can help minimize anxiety leading up to camp and make the initial adjustment period easier.
Gradual practice with separations helps kids gain confidence in their ability to be away from parents.
- Start with sleepovers at a friend or relative’s house.
- Go on weekend trips or day camps.
- Build up to longer durations away.
With each successful separation, kids learn they can cope on their own and parents always come back.
Involve Kids in the Process
Giving kids a sense of control and ownership over the camp experience can increase enthusiasm and reduce apprehension.
- Let kids help pick which camp to attend.
- Allow them to pack their own bags.
- Make a countdown calendar to camp.
- Have them set camp goals.
Discuss Coping Strategies
Talk to kids about what homesickness is and how normal it is to feel that way. Brainstorm ideas for coping like:
- Writing letters home
- Keeping a journal
- Making new friends
- Talking to counselors
- Staying busy
Reassure kids you have confidence in their ability to manage being away and you’ll be proud of them for trying new things.
Pack Familiar Items
Packing comforting reminders of home can ease the transition.
- Photos of family and pets
- Favorite stuffed animal or blanket
- Decorations for their bunk like pictures or posters
Avoid packing cell phones as it can make homesickness worse. Stick to tangible objects they can hold at night.
The First Days of Camp
The initial adjustment period when kids first arrive at camp can set the tone for the rest of the experience. Camp staff should take measures to facilitate a smooth transition.
Don’t Let Parents Walk Kids to Cabins
It’s tempting for parents to settle nervous kids into their cabins, but this can make separation more difficult. Kids should say goodbye at registration, then walk to cabins with counselors.
Jump Into Activities
Keeping homesick-prone kids busy and engaged from the start prevents too much idle time to dwell on missing home.
Validate that feelings of homesickness are normal when away from home for the first time. Emphasize camp staff are there to help them adjust.
Facilitate Social Connections
Introduce campers to their cabinmates right away to start forming new friendships and support systems.
Effective Coping Techniques for Homesick Campers
If kids do experience homesickness, there are many proven strategies counselors can use to help them through it.
Keep Them Busy
Staying active is key. Homesick kids should be encouraged to participate in their favorite camp activities as much as possible. Don’t allow them to isolate themselves.
Provide Extra Attention and Reassurance
Spend one-on-one time reassuring homesick campers they are safe and will have fun once they adjust. Check in on them frequently.
Have Them Buddy Up
Pair homesick kids with those who’ve overcome homesickness themselves and can offer guidance. Social support is very comforting.
Encourage Letters From Home
Letters, care packages, or emails from parents reminding kids of their support and love can lift spirits. Avoid phoning home.
Remind Kids Why They’re at Camp
Discuss the reasons they wanted to go to camp – to try new things, make friends, be more independent. Those goals are still achievable.
Teach Emotion Regulation Skills
Coach kids through techniques like deep breathing, visualization, and positive self-talk to calm anxiety.
With patience and support from counselors, most cases of homesickness fade within 2-3 days as kids adjust to camp life.
When Is It Time to Go Home?
While the majority of homesick kids rebound quickly, some cases worsen over time. Camp staff should contact parents if homesickness is:
- Severe from the outset.
- Causing a child to isolate themselves and refuse activities.
- Leading to physical symptoms like loss of appetite, headaches, stomachaches.
- Interfering with sleep.
- Not improving after 2-3 days of focused counseling.
Going home should be a last resort. The goal is to empower kids to work through their homesickness and complete the camp session. But forcing severely distraught children to stay rarely ends well.
If the decision is made for a child to leave camp, frame it positively. Praise them for trying and focus on having a better experience next year.
The Role of Camp Staff
Well-trained camp staff are critical for identifying and alleviating homesickness. Counselors should:
- Attend pre-camp trainings on handling homesickness.
- Share their own camp experiences overcoming homesickness.
- Learn campers’ backgrounds before arrival.
- Watch for early warning signs like lack of appetite or energy.
- Offer empathetic support tailored to each child.
- Encourage campers to discuss their feelings.
- Build campers’ coping skills and resilience.
- Keep parents updated on progress.
With proper preparation and counseling, approximately 93% of homesick kids are able to complete camp according to research.
Tips for Parents of Homesick Kids
Parents play an equally important role in minimizing camper homesickness. Here is advice for parents:
- Discuss homesickness openly before camp starts.
- Pack familiar comfort objects from home.
- Put together a photo book or album for camp.
- On drop-off day, aim for a quick, positive goodbye.
- Avoid statements that assume homesickness like “I know you’ll get homesick.”
- If contacted by the camp about homesickness, remain calm and optimistic.
- In letters to your child, focus on the exciting activities at camp, not how much you miss them.
- Trust the camp staff’s judgment on whether your child should come home or not.
- If your child does come home early, don’t criticize them or make them feel guilty.
- Start planning for next year’s camp experience right away.
With preparation and encouragement from both camp staff and parents, kids gain confidence and coping skills to manage being away from home. Though challenging at first, camp provides an invaluable opportunity for growth that lasts well beyond the summer.
10 Key Takeaways on Handling Homesickness at Camp
- Homesickness is very normal when kids are separated from their primary attachment figures. Most campers experience some level of it.
- Take steps like practice separations to prepare kids for camp and build coping skills.
- Involve children in picking the camp and packing to give them ownership.
- The first days of camp are critical for facilitating adjustments through activities and social connections.
- Keep homesick kids engaged in camp activities as much as possible to prevent isolation.
- Provide empathetic counseling and teach emotion regulation techniques.
- Most mild cases resolve within 2-3 days. Severe homesickness may require going home.
- Well-trained camp staff are essential for identifying and alleviating homesickness.
- Parents should remain calm and optimistic if contacted about homesickness.
- Overcoming homesickness leads to tremendous growth in independence and maturity.
Summer camp has so many benefits for kids like building self-confidence, developing social skills, and forging lifelong friendships. While homesickness is very common initially, the strategies outlined in this guide can help ensure it is mild and temporary.
With preparation, encouragement, patience, and empathy from both camp staff and parents, the vast majority of kids can work through feelings of homesickness to enjoy camp and return home more mature and resilient. Mastering separation is a pivotal milestone on the road to adulthood that allows kids to internalize their support systems.
Though homesickness may never disappear entirely, it need not ruin the magical camp experience so many kids look forward to all year. By following these recommendations, parents and camp staff can partner to make homesickness a small bump in the road rather than a roadblock to a rewarding summer.