NEW YORK CITY — The final days of winter bring thoughts of the coming summer and, for parents, this means making decisions about summer camp.
For some, it's time to ask if their child is ready for sleepaway camp, so we're taking the opportunity to look at the issues that families will need to navigate.
The Benefits of Camp
Whether it is a partial-day or full-day camp, or a sleepaway variety, camp offers many benefits to children of all ages. Exposure to new experiences, trips, activities and sports, as well as new learning experiences separate camp from the rigors of school. Camp allows your child some time to de-stress from the academic year, and be around peers in a fun setting.
Additionally, the social benefits of camp include making new friends (which may be a different population from those in school or the neighborhood), and interacting in a less adversarial way with adults.
Many adults look back on their camp experiences extremely fondly, and have maintained friendships that span decades.
In the case of sleepaway camp, the experience of being away from home can foster resilience and independence in a supportive and caring environment. Not having Mom and Dad around can be a daunting prospect, or a freeing experience, for a child.
The sleepaway experience can also have benefits for the family at home as well. Parents can spend time with their other offspring, not to mention the personal time spouses can spend with each other with the children out of the house.
Are They Ready? Probably
In my private practice, parents often wonder if it’s the right time to send their child to sleepaway camp. I usually address this concern with a quote from Shakespeare: “What’s past is prologue.” Or, look to past experience as a guide to the future.
Every child is different and unique. Just because a child reaches a certain biological age, say 12 years old, doesn’t mean they are automatically ready to be away from home for an extended period of time. Conversely, there are 7-year-olds who are completely ready to graduate from day camp to sleepaway camp.
If your child has had “successful” sleepovers at friends' or relatives' houses, or if they’ve been on overnight school trips (without you as a chaperone), then they are probably ready for at least a weeklong sleepaway camp experience. By “successful,” I mean coming away with a positive feeling and experience, without reported incident or intense separation anxiety.
Other examples of these overnight or weekend trips can include Boy or Girl Scout trips, religious retreats, academic or sports-related overnight trips.
Additionally, if your child is requesting a sleepaway camp experience, and they are not exhibiting problems at home or at school, this should be taken as a positive sign.
The takeaway: if your child comes home from time spent away indicating excitement for the next trip, then they are probably ready for sleepaway camp.
Are They Ready? Probably Not
Unfortunately, many children have experiences away from home that are less than affirming. Children sometimes steal from overnight hosts, bully or get bullied by other children (and adults), and fighting may occur. Some of these experiences can leave children traumatized, and leave parents feeling reluctant to let them out of their sights.
Here you have to weigh some factors. Has the child matured out of these behaviors, assuming he or she was the “cause” of the negativity? If trauma occurred, has the child received any treatment? Have there been positive changes in behavior at school or at friends’ homes since the incident(s)?
Many times, children act out when they are experiencing stress. If the stress has passed, and your child’s problematic behavior has abated, then you can make a more balanced decision.
Additionally, children often have separation anxiety that is a result of smaller, or “little T” traumas. These kids often “cling” to parents or close adults, but it’s less about clinginess and more about a perceived lack of safety and the ability to self-soothe on the child’s part. You may need to examine this with a mental health professional, and employ some strategies before they can go off to camp.
The takeaway: If a child has problematic behavior at home or school, with peers, or is clinging to adults, the time may not be right for a sleepaway camp experience.
Are You Ready?
Your child has had positive experiences at day camp, has been away from home without parental supervision for a weekend, has good relationships with peers, and is asking to go away to camp this summer. But you’re still unsure if they’re ready.
It may be time to look at your own experiences and emotions surrounding your children being away from you. Often times it’s the parents’ separation anxiety that is at play. Feelings of helplessness that they will not be there to protect their child if problems arise, or injuries are sustained. Other times, parents have their own negative experiences around summer camp, and feel that they are protecting their children from having the same bad experience they had many years ago.
It’s important that parents are able to separate what is their experience and emotional reactions from that of their child’s. This is not always easy, and sometimes it requires short-term counseling to address these issues.
What Type of Camp?
The camping experience has become so specialized and varied that it’s like walking into Dylan’s Candy Bar: where to begin?
Consider what your child’s interests are (sports, academics, arts & crafts, nature/adventure, music, touring, astronaut), and take it from there.
It’s important both for the parent and the child that you not break the bank for camp. If your child wants to attend a monthlong basketball camp in Maine, but you can only afford a week in upstate New York, be honest with yourselves and your child about the limitations of the family budget, and try to find the best alternatives. This can be a difficult conversation, but it’s far preferable to the stress of going into debt, and the resentment that can follow.
What To Do If Problems Arise
Your family has decided that this is the year your child will attend sleepaway camp for the first time. Camp begins on June 27. On June 28, you receive a call from your son or daughter crying, saying they “hate it here,” and that they “want to come home.” What should you do?
First and foremost, it’s important that you listen to your child, and hear them out. You want to communicate that whatever they tell you, you take their concerns seriously.
After you hear them out, try to ascertain what the nature of the problem is. Are they simply homesick? Will that wear off in a day or two? Are they scared for a different reason? Are they being bullied?
Once you have figured out the issue, now it's time to act.
Sometimes simply talking to your child and reassuring them that they will be OK has a calming affect. If they have had other experiences where they have felt this way before, and then overcome that feeling, try to tie that in.
Remember, camping is not like it used to be. Most camps have Internet access. Many camps allow cellphones. You can remind your child (and yourself), that you are a text message, phone call, or Skype session away if they need to connect.
Also, it's important to consult with the camp staff. A good camp will have specialists on hand to help parents and campers deal with these types of issues. They have years of experience that you can tap into as a valuable resource, not to mention it makes the staff aware of any emotional needs that your child may need help with during their stay.
If it’s two weeks into a monthlong camp and problems continue to persist, it may be time for a visit. On that visit, have an honest discussion with your child, and if need be, you can pull your child out of camp on the spot. If you and the camp have tried to help your child, and problems have not abated, this is a reasonable option to exercise.
Summer can be a special time in a child’s life, and camp can play an integral part in this. With an objective and balanced approach to decisions around camp, you will be giving your child every opportunity to experience camp as a fun, enriching, and halcyon time in their lives.
Morris Cohen is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker by the State of New York, and maintains a private psychotherapy and consultation practice in Midtown Manhattan. You can visit his website at morriscohenlcsw.com.