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.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 30, 2003
5 min read

Florence Leon first went to overnight camp when she was 12. Through umpteen leathercraft wallets and throat-numbing singalongs until she was a college-aged bunk counselor, she logged only great summer memories and experiences. "Two of my best friends today I met at camp," she says. "And that was 35 years ago."

But what's on her mind as this summer unfolds is how her son, at 12, will sail through his maiden journey into that cherished family tradition. Frankly, admits the Philadelphia social worker, she's worried about Stefan. Not so much about pillow-soaked bouts of homesickness, the probable chance of lost or unwashed underwear, or even the one-in-a-zillion chance that his counselor is a pedophile.

She's concerned about his skin. "What if he gets an infected mosquito bite? Who will make sure he wears sunscreen? When he's at camp, who will do the things I do for him, like make sure his skin is protected? Some teenager I don't know from Adam who has to look after a dozen other kids?"

It will continue through the summer: Some 6 million American youths heading to the nation's 10,000 summer camps, many carrying extra socks, self-addressed postcards, and angst. While fleeting homesickness affects as many as 95% of campers, about one in 11 will likely develop real anxiety disorders caused by these vacations -- along with their parents.

"Separation anxiety is the most common camp-related problem, for both kids and their parents," says psychologist Anne Marie Albano, PhD, of the New York University Child Study Center.

"But many also have social anxiety -- an extreme fear in worrying that people won't like them -- or generalized anxiety in which they worry about catastrophic events. And these problems often come in packages.

"Since we know that anxiety tends to run in families, and children model their behavior in what they see their parents do, when you see kids anxious about attending camp, that often translates to anxious parents of those campers. Sometimes, the parents have it worse. And unfortunately, they show this to their kids."

At Camp Shane, an overnight weight-loss camp in the Catskill Mountains, the staff is prepared to deal with these self-induced or family-fueled camper problems in its 500 attendees.

"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."

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."

"When you signed the contract to send your child to camp, there was also an implied contract that you trust they will have fun and be safe," says Albano.

"It's normal to have concerns, but if you are really struggling with these issues, you're sending out contradictory messages that most children will pick up, and likely trigger or contribute to feelings of anxiety. The idea of going to camp may cause you both distress, but it's working through distress that helps us advance."