Summer camp season is just around the corner, and for many, it’s a natural solution to occupy children with enriching and new experiences during the summer months. Some children adapt to the challenge seamlessly, while others are filled with apprehension – or even full-blown anxiety. How you prepare your child for this milestone can make all the difference. With these tips you’ll be sending your child off, knapsack in tow, feeling confident and ready for new adventures.
Here are 7 ways to prepare your kids for this big summer milestone:
1) Have a practice run. Having a sleepover at a friend or family member’s house can help increase your child’s confidence. Not only does it provide the practice to master sleepover success, it gives them a new sense of capability and independence. Larger group sleepovers can help children learn how to manage group living, including keeping their belongings organized, and falling asleep in a room filled with chatty peers. Going camping as a family can be a great way to help children understand what camping entails, including how to handle flashlights, bugs, sleeping in cabins, and exploring the great outdoors.
2) Let them know what to expect. Practical information, like where they’ll be sleeping and what kinds of activities they’ll be doing, can front load your child with a greater awareness of what to expect. Share pictures of the camp itself by looking online together. Your child will almost always want to know how they can reach you. Keep in mind, camps have various communication policies. Make sure you and your child are comfortable with the communication guidelines that are in place. If you’re not able to speak over the phone, decide on an alternate way to connect. Email contact, or going old school and letter writing can do the trick, but make sure your child knows how often to expect communication to ensure they aren’t left wondering why you haven’t reached out.
3) Include your child in the planning. Sleepover summer camps are supposed to be exciting, but there are a lot of unknowns. When a child is included in packing their own bag, they can feel a greater sense of control, which can greatly reduce potential stress. Follow the camp’s packing list guidelines and teach your child how to manage toiletries and wet and dirty clothes. Children often want to bring stuffies and other soothing objects. If they do bring one along, make sure it’s one your child can tolerate getting dirty or even lost.
4) Enlist another supportive adult. Ask the camp administrator if you can speak to your child’s camp counsellors in advance, so you can share a little about your child and ways to best meet their needs if a struggle arises. Find out an interesting tidbit of information about your child’s designated counsellors to bridge the attachment gap. Knowing that the adult who will be looking after them has a pet, a child of their own, or a shared interest, can be reassuring for a nervous child.
5) Make time to talk about fears. Children can have a whole host of feelings when it comes to overnight events. Excitement about the adventure, fears of being away from mom or dad, or anxiety about fitting in can all come up. Be ready to support whatever emotions they express, and to soothe your child with both reassurance and potential solutions.
6) Find out what your child’s internal voice is saying about camp. Ask what worries they might have, and help them harness their strengths or coping mechanisms to combat those fears. Draw on situations in the last year that demonstrate their resilience and problem-solving ability. Help your child explore and integrate what went well during those experiences. From there, help them to create an empowering and positive internal story about their overnight adventure by writing it down or creating a picture.
7) Share your own experience of summer camp. If you went to summer camp during your childhood, share your stories, touching on any feelings of apprehension you may have had at the time. When your child hears you normalize your own fears, it can give them permission to be open about their emotions, and eventually move through it. Don’t forget to also share your summer camp successes, re-focusing on the feelings of confidence and pride that come with facing a new challenge.
Parents too can feel emotionally stressed by this separation. Keep in mind, focusing too much on how much you will miss them will likely amplify their sadness about the separation. Instead, let them know that you’ll miss them, but you’re excited to hear about all the new things they’ll discover.
If all the coping tools and preparation do not leave your child emotionally ready for overnight camp, be willing to change plans. Any new experience is meant to empower, and pushing a child to take a step they aren’t ready for simply isn’t worth it.