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Ensure a Happy Summer Camper

It's not just the 6 million American kids heading to summer camp who may have trouble adjusting. It's also their parents.
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Anxiety-Ridden continued...

"Because our campers are overweight, they have a lot of emotional issues -- low self-esteem, lack of friends at home, so there's often a lot riding on their coming here," says camp owner and director David Ettenberg, CCD.

"Our counselors are trained, and we have a guidance staff made up of school counselors, psychologists or social workers to deal with any camper problems, along with a grandmotherly type 'Camp Mom' who goes bunk-to-bunk.

"But in truth, the vast majority of kids are fine. Yes, they miss their parents, but they adjust, make friends, have fun, and can't help but lose weight," he tells WebMD. "It's their parents who I sometimes worry about. Just yesterday, I had one mother who couldn't stop crying as she dropped off her child. And then I got a call from another who already did, worried about homesickness and wanting to come to take him home."

Course for a Happy Camper

What can you do to better ensure everyone in the family is a happy camper?

  • Get solution-oriented. "By approaching your child in an optimistic, solution-oriented way, you both can prevent camp anxiety," says Albano, assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine.

  • "Instead of saying, 'Make sure you apply sunscreen or you may get cancer,' tell your child that the sun may be very hot and strong at camp, and ask how they will handle it. They may say, 'I'll wear a hat or stay indoors' and you can casually suggest that while those are good options, another is sunscreen -- and that they are going to camp because they are responsible enough to make sure they wear it each day."

    This can strengthen a sense of self-reliance in potentially worried campers -- for the summer and beyond. "There's great relief in feelings of mastery, and children will see themselves as braver and smarter when they faced a challenge and met it on their own," says Suzanne Thompson, PhD, pediatric psychologist at St. Louis Children's Hospital. It also helps parents come to grips with an important reality that may quench their own fears: There are some things they can't control.

  • Get real. Even Las Vegas bookies are unlikely to take bets that Junior will be kidnapped from a s'mores-filled campfire or break a leg playing softball.

    "Separation anxiety, in part, is a fear of the unknown, but parents need to be realistic about the unknown and stress this in their kids, as well as themselves," says Thompson, herself a former camp counselor. "Yes, bad things occasionally do happen at summer camp, but their real chance of happening is very, very low. Virtually all kids come home happy and better for the experience, even if it's without their underwear."

  • Keep sendoffs short and sweet. There's a good reason why most camps transport kids or quickly shoo off parents on that first day -- when kids are most vulnerable to homesickness or anxiety. "It may be hard to pry yourself away from a crying child, but the sooner you do, the better," says Albano. "Long goodbyes, especially when either of you is crying, only extend the suffering."

  • Consider reminders -- after you consider personalities. Many campers benefit from bringing along reminders of home, a love (or encouraging) goodbye note, a family picture, or even a lipsticked kiss to their hand. But this tactic can backfire in some kids, making them pine more for what they've left.

    "You really have to know your child and yourself," says Thompson. "If your instincts tell you these mementos will help, include them. But don't if you think they'll only add to their homesickness and your feelings of missing them."

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