Summer camp, whether day or sleep-away, likely marks the first time a child is in an entirely new environment and away from their home and family for an extended amount of time. Sure, the weather is generally pleasant, there’s probably swimming and camp fires galore, and camp counselors are, by nature, friendly and outgoing. However, deep in the hearts of many children there may be a small ache for home, a beloved pet, or just people they love the best.

It’s called homesickness. And, according to Lucy Norvell, director of development & communications at American Camp Association, New England, it’s quite common, especially for the first-time camper. In fact, many campers find themselves missing home at one point.

“The key thing,” she says, “is what happens when homesickness hits.”

In a 2007 study published in the Pediatrics Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, homesickness is defined as “distress and functional impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home and attachment objects such as parents.” Those who suffer from the condition feel some form of anxiety, sadness, and nervousness, and most distinctly, obsessive preoccupation with thoughts of home. Homesick children are usually tearful and withdrawn.

Yet with some simple wisdom and practical advice, parents will have the tools to set their child up for fun in the sun instead of tears on the pillow.

Parents, get your game face on

From time to time, parents may exhibit anxiety or sadness about the prospect of being away from their child. This, in turn, could make their child anxious. In terms of preparation, parents’ attitudes are critical.

“Successful campers have parents who transmit a feeling of excitement and possibility when talking about an upcoming camp,” says Kerri Augusto, co-director of BC5 Cheer Camp, an overnight camp held at Becker College in Leicester. “These parents focus on favorite activities and new experiences and opportunities to make friends and, as a result, their children come to camp filled with positive expectations.”

Less-successful campers, she adds, often have parents who allow their own anxieties to filter into the pre-camp conversation and offer options such as, “If you don’t like it, I’ll come get you” or “You can come home at any time.”

“Though meant to provide a feeling of security, these offers plant the idea that camp won’t be fun, and rather than work through the anxiety inherent in having a new experience, the child is likely to view any discomfort as a signal that it’s time to go home,” Augusto notes.

Instead, parents should try normalizing the experience of possible homesickness and offer strategies their child can use in case sadness strikes.

“Sometimes it’s nice to have something from home that reminds the child of family,” Norvell says. “Let the child choose a photograph; pack an encouraging note from parents. Sometimes an object like a teddy bear brings comfort. When the child has benefitted from a discussion beforehand, they can swing right into recommended actions. It’s best to keep things simple: Tell a counselor how you feel. Take a look at the photo you brought, etc.”

Parents, put down the phone and get out a pen & paper

Experts advise parents to resist the urge to call, especially if their homesick child is away only for a short time. Most likely, it will just increase distress for both parent and child.
The American Academy of Pediatrics study suggests “old-fashioned letters may be the best way to maintain contact with home. They lack the emotionally evocative quality of a telephone call, and they require narrative reflection, which promotes understanding of one’s experience.”

“Many parents will tell us that their child will ‘feel better knowing s/he can call me,’” says Augusto, also a professor of psychology at Becker College. “In fact, it is often the parent who feels better knowing there is a lifeline between parent-child at all times. A quality camp keeps children busy and provides opportunities to build relationships. Children, even as young as 5 or 6, will succeed best when they are allowed to be fully in the moment. A call from home takes them out of the moment and creates feelings of anxiety.”

For those reasons, many camps have a “no phone” or “limited phone” policy.

Augusto also notes that a parent who encourages communication at any time is likely to strip the child of opportunities for social growth by encouraging the child to invoke “helicopter parenting” when things become challenging. This denies camp counselors and staff the opportunity to assist the child with developing critical peer communication and problem-solving skills.

Trust the camp

Most camps provide their staff with training and strategies for helping children cope with homesickness. They’ll even make a special point to celebrate their accomplishments on this front. Some camps may offer a reassuring alternative to direct contact, such as an assigned camp counselor who will contact parents to give updates on their child.

“It can be harder for parents to watch from a distance than for children to experience,” ACA New England’s Norvell says. “Parents often feel a sense of kid-sickness. Parents are home with a hole in their lives, which the child typically fills, while the child is off at camp in a child-centered world. With letters to parents and even for emails, which some camps now allow, often the child experiences the emotion, offloads, and then moves on. Meanwhile, the parents open an envelope days later and read the intensity of the feeling after it’s long-since passed!”

Norvell encourages parents to follow the camp’s lead by “allowing camp professionals and staff to help your child succeed in a variety of ways.”

She reminds parents: the flip side of homesickness is empowerment.

“Such an experience builds resilience. Later they think, I worked through homesickness, I can conquer the next challenge, too,” Norvell adds. “Campers who adjust to a separation as school-age children have an easier time when college rolls around.”