Many kids experience some homesickness at camp – most often the sad feelings flare up during down times like meals, rest time, or at bedtime. While they’re busy with activities and their minds are occupied, most kids feel fine and say the fun they have at camp far outweighs any sad feelings.
Homesickness is a normal feeling and nothing to be ashamed or scared of. We need to openly tell kids that their feelings are okay, so that they feel comfortable talking about missing home. Contrary to what some people assume, talking about it will not make it worse. In fact, for many kids, learning to talk about difficult emotions (homesickness among them) is an important social skill that will improve their well-being.
For the most part, kids who come to summer camp adjust within a few days and overcome even some intensely sad feelings of missing home. But there are some campers for whom the intensity of the homesickness is much stronger, and the discomfort lasts longer. For these kids, it can be extremely difficult as a parent to know what to say or do. When your kid is pleading with you to let them come home, it’s very difficult not to jump in your car and rescue them from their misery. But I don’t think that’s the best choice (unless a child has serious mental health issues).
Homesickness is real and can cause severe emotional discomfort. Some children become so emotionally debilitated that they cry frequently, want to talk about their homesickness constantly, experience physical symptoms like stomachaches or headaches, and plead to go home. If your child is one of these extremely homesick campers, you’ll hear about it – either directly from your child or from someone at the camp.
Some parents – especially those who know their child’s propensity for general anxiety or separation anxiety – anticipate that the adjustment to summer camp may be difficult for their child and call the camp in advance. Communicating concerns with counselors and camp directors is always a good idea.
Addressing homesickness head-on is always the best practice. In pre-camp family orientations, we let parents and kids know that missing home is normal and to be anticipated. On the first day of camp, we also let kids know who they can talk with and what to do if they’re feeling sad. Making it okay to talk about homesickness is helpful for kids, especially older ones who might otherwise feel embarrassed by their feelings and therefore not want to let anyone know what’s going on.
Before the feelings hit, it’s good to provide kids with coping strategies to deal with homesickness. Rather than waiting until their emotions are strong, kids who have thought about “tools” that might help will be better prepared to handle difficult emotions.
Parents can share ideas for dealing with homesickness and ask which strategies they think might work best before their kids even leave for camp. A good starting question might be “What do you think will help you most if you are missing home?”
Kids should think of their own ideas first, and then parents can step in and offer some other strategies like playing cards, reading books, writing in a journal, and getting involved in camp activities.
Some parents are surprised to receive a homesick, pleading letter from their camper, whom they anticipated would have no problem adjusting to being away from home. Sometimes homesickness creeps up on returning campers who didn’t experience it during their first summer and didn’t expect it as a veteran camper. These new emotions can be due to changing hormones, turmoil at home, or other factors.
I remember hearing from a long-time camper’s mom about how, although the camper had several years of summer camp under her belt, a month-long program overseas proved to be extremely difficult. Lengthy, tear-filled phone calls about her miserable experience with a difficult roommate led to a shortened stay. When this same camper returned to her “normal” camp the following summer, she lacked the confidence she once had in her ability to succeed at being away from home. Her bad experience and shortened stay in the abroad program had rocked her belief in her ability to be on her own despite her successful experiences in previous years.
Over my 30 years at camp, I’ve counseled a lot of homesick kids and distraught parents. A few of these kids have gone home early from camp. Most have stayed and worked through their homesickness and felt much better by about the third or fourth day of camp. The severity of the homesickness was the same; the only difference between the ones who went home and the ones who stayed was how the parents handled their child’s homesickness.
Here are some of the positive messages I’ve heard parents give (either by letter, email, or phone) that have helped kids overcome their homesickness:
1. Your feelings are normal.
2. Even though you don’t feel like you can do this, I know you can. I have confidence in you and know that you will face this challenge and do great at camp.
3. I know you feel miserable right now and I’m sorry this is so hard for you.
4. I am not coming to pick you up early. You are staying at camp.
5. Nothing fun or exciting is going on at home. In fact, it’s boring here. Camp is a much better place for you to be this week because….the house is getting exterminated, I’m going to a work conference, all I’m doing is cleaning out closets. I can’t wait to hear about the fun activities you’re trying at camp!
6. The days will start going much faster once you’ve adjusted to camp. I know these first days have seemed long.
7. The more you participate and get involved, the better you will feel.
8. Overcoming your homesickness will help you feel more confident about future adventures away from home.
9. Even though it’s painful right now, I know that you are growing and maturing because of your camp experience.
10. I’m really proud of you.
At my camp, we don’t allow phone calls, but I know at many programs campers call their parents, cry, and beg to be rescued. As a parent, it’s extremely difficult to handle that much strong, negative emotion coming from your child. I recommend limiting phone calls (if they are allowed) so that your child isn’t spending their day focused on their next call to you. From my experience, hearing a parent’s voice makes the homesick emotions even stronger. If you are getting homesick calls or texts from your camper, I recommend contacting the camp administrative staff and having them provide emotional support and counseling to your child.
One of the most homesick campers I’ve counseled told me, through many sobs over the first few days of camp, that she “couldn’t make it” to the end and that she just wasn’t “a camp type of person.” She was adamant about telling me and her parents that she was “not ready” for a camp experience. But her parents were very clear to her that, although they were sad she was in such distress, they were not going to pick her up early from camp.
A few days after hearing in a letter from her parents that she would not be going home early, she wrote a letter home saying, “The super homesick letters are from the past.”
Two weeks later, she went home at the end of the session and her mom reported back to me: “I just wanted to say a huge thank you for helping my daughter get past the difficult times at camp,” she wrote. “She was so elated and proud of herself when she got off the bus, and she definitely wants to go back next summer! What a huge (and long overdue victory for her)! We have you and your supportive staff to thank for helping our daughter reach her potential.”
She came home “amazingly different,” the mom said. Camp “made her happy,” and she had been “walking around the house singing camp songs” and being “a lot sillier.”
This same camper, who at first was one of the most homesick campers I’ve ever worked with, is returning for her third summer at camp this year! These parents made the right decision to stand firm on their “no pick up” rule and maintain their confidence that their daughter could meet the challenge of being away from home.
This same story – one of extreme emotional distress followed by elation at meeting the challenge of staying at camp – has repeated itself over the years too many times to count.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve had conversations with parents who’ve come to pick their kids up early but, once they see what their camper will be missing, have expressed remorse for giving their kid the option of coming home.
Hopefully, you won’t be faced with such a choice this summer, but if you are, choose camp!
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