Our daughters first went to overnight camp ages six and a half and nine. After scoping out the camp at the Open House the summer before and attending a slide show information night in the spring, they were pumped to go, for not one but two weeks.
So we were surprised when we received the first letter from our older daughter about a week after she left. “I miss you,” she opined. “I’m counting down the days until I see you. But camp is fun.” We were sure we could see where her tears had smudged the ink.
Your heart sinks when you read that your child is homesick. Our first instinct was to call the camp. The program director answered the phone. “Ohhh yeah,” she said, like she was thinking back to something that happened 10 years ago. “I remember your daughter was going through a bit of homesickness. But that was a week ago. She’s fine now.” She explained that nine is a tricky age. “They’re more aware of things, of missing people, of the passing of time. Younger kids are still a bit oblivious.”
And she was fine. At the end of the two weeks we drove to camp to retrieve them, thinking maybe this was the end of the camp road for her. But no, she was jacked on the experience, both of them were, and they declared that next year they’d be back for three weeks, thank you very much.
That was 11 summers ago. The homesick one, now 20, spends May to August at camp and is the head of swimming. The younger one, who consoled and comforted her older sister through her homesickness, is a senior counsellor.
“Homesickness is natural and normal,” says Susan Marks, a social worker in Montreal in private practice who also is a camp consultant. “Don’t be disappointed if it happens. It’s not a weakness; it’s a healthy, normal part of life. Our parent world is so competitive, that a child being homesick is some kind of failure. No one gets a badge of honour.”
Here are some tips for handling homesickness, and steps to take to avoid it in the first place:
1. Start before you pack that duffel bag
In the weeks and months before your children get on the bus (and by the way, don’t hesitate to put them on the camp bus – they’ll start to bond with other campers and staff right away), skip any mention of missing them or overplaying how great it’s going to be. Asking them, “Are you going to miss me?” or saying, “You’re going to miss us” could set doubts in your child’s mind about your faith in their ability to have a good time without you.
Generally speaking, the older the child or the more they understand, the more you need to prepare them, says Susan. “Talk to your kids about the possibility of being homesick. It takes away the shame. Explain what it could feel like but emphasize that it’s normal. Pack a few things to keep them busy and distracted, such as books or a favourite stuffed animal. Explain to them that it’s OK if they feel sad or write a sad letter home, that they’ll be OK.”
2. It’s called snail mail
We’re so used to being instantly connected to our kids via those evil smart phones, that when we get a letter in the mail, we forget it’s a snapshot of how they were feeling several days earlier. That doesn’t mean you should have instant access to your kids at camp. Few camps allow cell phones and it’s a great opportunity for kids to unplug from social media, and for you to unplug from them.
“Going screen-free is a fabulous idea,” says Susan. “It’s allows kids a chance to shut down their brains from screens and to disconnect from the Internet. Ask the camp what their policy and philosophy is. There are exceptions to every rule but in general, any contact other than mail should be through the office.” Some camps encourage parents to email their kids and the camp office will deliver the messages, but think of this as a time to reinvigorate your letter writing skills.
Disconnecting from our kids is also a great opportunity for parents to get to know themselves again. “We’re so busy parenting, it’s nice to have a break from our kids,” says Susan. “Distance makes everyone learn and grow. Parents benefit from knowing their kid is somewhere happy, problem-solving without them.”
3. Don’t read too much into the letters.
Remember that when your kids are writing a letter, it’s likely during the post-lunch rest hour or bedtime. It’s a quiet time when they’re being forced to think about you, so feelings of sadness are natural. Often kids don’t know what to write. “I miss you” can be an innocuous phrase they think they’re supposed to say. But when we read it, we sometimes panic. “The letter is a moment and in that moment the child is feeling sad or lonely but that doesn’t mean that’s how they are feeling all the time,” says Susan. “Read them, feel what you feel from them, call the camp if you’re concerned, then write them a newsy letter. Emphasize that you’re so happy they’re at camp. And then wait for the next letter.”
4. Keep your letters light
Avoid telling your kids how much you miss them. It sounds like a nice thing to say but it could make kids feel sad or guilty for leaving you. Instead, keep the letters newsy. “Let kids know what’s going on, that you love them and miss them and that you hope you’re having a great time,” says Susan. “If you get a sad letter or see a picture on the camp website that worries you, don’t bombard them with questions.”
5. Resist the urge to rescue
Many parents wonder if they should bring their child home early from camp due to being homesick. “Every situation is completely different, but for the most part, trust that camp has the tools and skills to deal with your child,” says Susan. “Camps should be in touch with parents if there’s anything they need to know. Parents have to be willing to put their trust in the camp that they chose.” Susan reiterates that being homesick is not a failure on the part of you or your child. It’s something to get through. In fact it can be an opportunity. “You can say to your child, ‘I know you felt homesick but look how much you achieved!’” Indeed, with our daughter, that first year of camp became a formative moment in her life.
Susan is quick to add that kids should not be forced to go to camp. “If they’re dreading going, that’s a problem. Kids have to want to explore the possibility of being away.” She also notes that parents should let the camp know if they think there’s a reason their child might be homesick. “The more you share, the more supported they’ll be.”
Send your child with a fill-in-the-blanks letter, complete with envelope and stamp. Young children sometimes lack the ability to record all the details parents crave. We wanted to know the names of cabin mates, counsellors, favourite meals, favourite activities. These pre-fab letters made it easier for our daughters to gather and record the info.
Susan’s daughter wrote herself a letter with the questions she had, wondering what camp would be like. A few days after she arrived at camp she received the letter from herself and that reminded her of all the things she’d been wondering about. “She loved it.”
Remember, no news is good news. “If you haven’t heard from your child, feel free to call the camp, but it’s likely your child is having a great time and is not interested in writing,” says Susan.
To learn more about Susan Marks’ practice, go to susanmarks.ca.