Tips For Avoiding Homesickness

When you think about sending your child to camp, you might be picturing warm summer evenings by the campfire, smiles, laughter, friendship bracelets, and a myriad of fun and exciting activities. Or you may be picturing your child crying, terribly homesick, and begging for an early departure. I grew up at camp, first as a staff kid, then as a camper, and for the past 26 years, as a staff member at Camp Kodiak. After almost 40 years at summer camp, I have had a lot of experience with homesickness. I remember when I was eight years old and finally ready to live in a cabin. My twin sister cried the first night, missing our parents…who were sleeping in a cabin across campus. According to Christopher Thurber, clinical psychologist and co-author of the article, Preventing and Treating Homesickness, homesickness is experienced to a greater or lesser degree by “nearly everyone leaving familiar surroundings and entering a new environment” (Thurber, 2007, p. 2). This suggests, therefore, that learning to manage homesickness is an important step in growing up and becoming more independent from one’s parents, as we are all likely to grapple with these feelings over and over again throughout our lives. Moving cities, going away to college or university, going on an extended vacation, or changing jobs can all produce bouts of homesickness, and skills we learn from overcoming homesickness once can help inoculate us against the negative impacts of it later. How, then, do we help prepare kids to be away from home and give them the tools to manage homesickness while they’re away?

At its core, homesickness is about worry. Kids might worry about things at camp: that they won’t have fun, won’t make friends, won’t feel safe, or won’t stop thinking about their families or pets. Campers can also feel worry about what is happening at home: Are my parents missing me too much? Are they having too much fun without me? Will they make changes to my room while I’m away? Will my friends or siblings forget about me? If your child worries more than is typical about other things such as sleeping alone, going to a friend’s house, or regular transitions such as starting a new school or grade, he might be more susceptible to experiencing more severe homesickness and may require both preventative and responsive strategies to navigate the experience successfully. Following is a series of strategies that can be used before and during camp to help youngsters who are experiencing homesickness. While some of the strategies are specific to Camp Kodiak, others are more universal.

What can you do before camp?

  1. Make sure that she is part of the decision to come to camp. This is not to say that the decision to go to camp rests entirely on the child’s shoulders, nor does it prevent you from “selling” the idea to your child. However, when children feel that they have been sent away without consultation, they feel a lack of control and are more likely to have a negative experience at camp.

    Part of involving your child in the decision to come to camp is assuring her that nothing significant will be happening at home while she is away. Remind your child that mom and dad will be working or re-organizing the garage, and she will be bored or in child care for the summer. Children might romanticize the idea of spending the summer at home, thinking that two months will be spent sleeping in, playing video games, and going on exciting family day-trips or adventures. If you reinforce that there will be expectations regarding waking up, doing chores, and having a routine, they realize that the excitement to be found at camp is the better alternative.

  2. Get familiar with camp before the session starts. If your child is coming in August and you live locally, you can arrange with camp administrators to come for a tour in July so that he becomes familiar and comfortable with the surroundings and meets some staff and kids. If a visit is not practical, spend some time with him exploring the camp website, taking a virtual tour, looking at pictures and videos, and getting a feel for what camp will be like when he gets there.

  3. Establish a friendly face before camp. We meet as many of our campers as possible during the registration process to determine appropriate cabin fit. This meeting also provides the opportunity for campers to establish a connection with a Director who will be at camp during the summer. Recongnizing a friendly face on their first day of camp reassures campers that they are familiar with someone from the very start.  For those campers who are unable to arrange a personal meeting due to distance we do a video submission. A great way for those campers to establish a friendly face is to call the camp office and arrange to call or Skype with a Director prior to camp. Having at least one person that you know will be at camp from the first day can really help the camper begin their camp experience with a positive outlook.

  4. Have your camper help with packing. Make sure to involve him in the packing process and include items that are sentimental or reminders of home such as a photograph, favourite music, or special blanket. Make sure to include a comfort object such as a cherished stuffed animal.  Bedtime tends to be a difficult time of day for homesick campers, so think of items that would help ease the transition or that help your camper relax.

  5. Encourage her to make connections. Homesickness stems from the perception that a person’s social supports are missing (Kaplow, 2010), so connecting with a peer or a trusted adult and establishing new social supports is the best way to overcome it. Remind your child to stay positive, and if she has difficulty making friends, consider role-playing some ice breakers and ways of getting to know a new peer. Reinforce that counsellors and staff members are there to help campers and really care about them and how they are feeling, and encourage your child to find an adult to get to know and trust, with whom she can share feelings of loneliness or homesickness.

  6. Communicate optimism in talking about the camp experience. Even if you, as the parent, are feeling a bit anxious about your child’s ability to overcome homesickness, express a positive outlook to your child with encouraging words like, “I know that being away from home can be scary, but I also know that you’re a strong, brave kid, and you’ll be able to manage it.” Remind your child that summer camp is a wonderful opportunity to meet new people and try new things, and there will be a lot of people there who can help with his worries. Do not say that you are worried or that it will be hard to be away. Let him know that feeling homesick is normal but that you have confidence in him and feel sure he can work through it.

  7. Try to help her break down the time into more manageable chunks. Many children have difficulty understanding how long 3 or 4 weeks really is—it seems like forever. Choose something that we do weekly, like our Friday night dance or Saturday barbecue, and remind her that camp is only long enough for 3 or 4 such events. Then as the summer progresses, you can help your child keep track of how many times she has done that activity and how many are left.

  8. DO NOT MAKE A DEAL ABOUT COMING HOME. Sometimes parents think that by promising the child he can come home after a few days or a week if he doesn’t like it, they will be able to get him past the initial homesickness and he will forget about the deal and enjoy the full summer. This does not work. Once a child has it in his mind that he is only staying for a shorter period of time, it is extremely difficult to convince him otherwise. By making this deal, you are not giving your child the opportunity to try to be successful at this larger goal of staying for the session. Furthermore, he will likely miss out on the most important aspects of camp, such as making real friendships, because his mind will always be halfway home, and he will have missed many important bonding experiences by leaving early.

 

What can you do during camp to help with homesickness?

  1. Write frequently. It can be very upsetting to a child if everyone in the cabin gets mail except her. Try to send an email daily. Emails that are received prior to 2:30 are printed and delivered that day. If they are received after 2:30, they will be printed and delivered the following day. Emails can be short and should reinforce the positive messages you tried to instil before your camper left for camp. Ask questions about the fun she is having, the friends she has made, and other positive aspects of camp. Consider asking what she is proudest of accomplishing or to tell you about a new activity she has learned. Provide news from home, but try not to make it too exciting so your child doesn’t feel she is missing out on special events while at camp. Check our Facebook page for photos, videos, and news of camp events so that you can ask your child about these special activities (e.g., “Tell me all about the pirate theme day on Sunday”; or “I saw a picture of you at the beach. You looked like you were having a lot of fun.”) Tell your child that you love her and are proud of her for being brave and learning to be independent, but please DO NOT tell her how sad you are that she is gone. These types of sentiments, although meant to communicate how much she means to you and your family, could make your child feel guilty about being away and causing you to miss her.

  2. Send care packages. Every camper loves receiving a care package from home. It doesn’t have to be big, but a favourite comic book, some peanut-free snacks, and a deck of cards can really make a camper’s day.

  3. Consult with the camp counsellors or leadership team. If your child is experiencing unusual homesickness and is quite distressed by it, somebody from camp will call to discuss this with you. This call is not meant to alarm you or suggest you pick your camper up. Rather, we want to know if there are any strategies you know of that might help, triggers that might be exacerbating the homesickness, or steps we can implement to help ease your child’s transition to camp. We are looking to work as a team to help your child have a successful camp experience.

 

What do we do at Camp Kodiak to manage homesickness?

  1. Keep them busy.  The busier campers are, the fewer opportunities they have to think about what they are missing at home. Generally, campers who are involved in activities and making friends are happy campers. While they may still experience occasional pangs of homesickness, they are less likely to struggle with severe or prolonged sadness about being away from home. We work hard to get campers to focus on the fun they are having, asking questions such as, “What was the best part of the day?” and “What are you excited about trying tomorrow?” In this way, they are geared towards the positive aspects of camp instead of the things they miss about home.

  2. Encourage connections. We try to connect campers with each other and with caring adults within the first day of camp. At Camp Kodiak, this work actually starts before the summer begins. By meeting our campers in advance, we try to get a feel of who they are socially and what types of kids they would feel most comfortable having in their cabin. We call this “social fit”. We recognize that not all 13-year-olds are similar to other 13-year-olds; otherwise, every child would make close friends amongst their classmates at school. Rather, we know that some kids are more interested in sports, video games, or the arts, and by grouping kids with like-minded peers, we are maximizing the chances of kids making friends within their cabin.

    Once campers arrive at camp, the work continues to help them forge connections. Cabins spend much of that first day doing team-building activities to turn individual campers and staff members into a cohesive group. They aim to get to know each other and recognize the similarities between them. These exercises may start the first day of camp, but they continue every day informally through shared experiences and more formally through nightly bunk meetings.

    If a camper seems to be having a particularly difficult time making these social connections, the staff help facilitate them more intentionally. This can be by arranging that two kids work on a special project together, that a group of campers do a special activity such as bunk time fishing or a gaga ball tournament with a favourite counsellor, or that campers connect with other homesick campers and a member of the leadership team to spend quiet time together doing crafts, playing chess, or making a video. Sometimes a homesick camper can be connected with an older, more experienced camper who has overcome these feelings in the past and can empathize. This can be done more informally, by asking older kids to monitor the “buddy bench” for kids who look like they could use a friend, or more formally by enlisting specific kids to demonstrate positive leadership. In some cases, the homesick child himself can be recruited as a leader and mentor, helping other kids who are struggling with being away for the first time. This opportunity can be the point at which his whole experience turns into a more positive one.

  3. Encourage letter writing. Campers who are feeling sad or homesick need to feel heard. Although calling home is generally not a good solution, writing a letter expressing how she is feeling can help. We usually advise campers to think of at least one or two positive things to include in the letter (e.g., friendly cabin mates or counsellors, a favourite activity, or a delicious meal) as well as expressing a desire to go home. We promise to scan and email the letter so that it gets there quickly. However, we also call home to give the parents advance notice that this letter is coming. It can be disheartening to receive a sad letter from a child; a phone call from the camp administration to explain the situation and what has been done so far can help parents know how to respond to these concerns in a way that both honours their child’s feelings and encourages her to keep trying.

  4. Establish clear bedtime routines. Bedtime is often the most difficult time of day for homesick campers. Many families have well-established traditions about how kids go to bed; perhaps they have a snack and story downstairs, another story in bed after teeth are brushed, and then hugs and kisses before lights out. Missing these nightly rituals can remind kids of what else they are missing at home, so at Camp Kodiak, we make sure to establish our own camp-centred bedtime routines. In every age group they look the same: pyjamas, snack, brushing teeth, bunk meeting, light-hearted bedtime story, goodnight. Bunk meetings are a time to reflect on the day, appreciate each other’s accomplishments, and share wishes for the next day. They are a camp variation on “community circles” (Cox, 2016), where all members are valued and all voices are heard. While during the day, bunk meetings might be called to solve a problem or restore relationships, bedtime bunk meetings are quieter and always lean towards optimism. “What made you proud today?” or “How did a friend show kindness today?” They provide a closure to the camp day that is positive and celebratory—good thoughts to have in mind before drifting off to sleep.

    Bedtime stories are also an integral part of the Camp Kodiak bedtime routine. They are chosen by cabin groups based on being age-appropriate and light-hearted—no scary stories at night. One chapter read aloud by the light of a flashlight often has several campers drifting off before the light is extinguished.

    This brings us to the goodnight. Counsellors say a general goodnight to the entire bunk, but then they go around to each camper with an individual wish for a good night and sweet dreams. And if campers came to us without a favourite stuffed animal, we can provide one of ours to snuggle with at night.

  5. Use a calendar. A camp session can seem like an eternity to a youngster, so printing out a calendar can be a helpful tool. It is a good idea to mark the dates with the camper’s favourite activities or popular full-camp events. Even a favourite meal, when mapped out on a calendar, can give a camper something to focus on in order to distract him from his homesickness. By breaking the session into manageable chunks, it can feel less overwhelming to consider being away from home. “It’s only two more days until your cabin goes waterskiing.” “The camp dance is in 3 more sleeps.”” We have campfire tomorrow night.” Two or three days is easier to digest than an entire session, and by breaking the camper’s time at camp into short periods, he is able to achieve many smaller goals rather than focusing on a single, daunting one.

  6. Schedule homesickness. Since homesickness is about worry, to a certain extent it should be treated like other types of worries or anxieties. By allowing children to dwell on it all day long, we are feeding the feelings and encouraging them to grow until they define the entire experience.  In her workbook for children, What to do when you worry too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety, Dr. Dawn Huebner suggests limiting the amount of time you allow a child to talk about her worries by establishing a “worry time” (Huebner, 2006, p. 36). Worry time is a short time each day dedicated entirely to discussing worries. At first, kids might count down the seconds until worry time begins, but eventually they often forget to talk about their worries because they get wrapped up in something else.

    Homesickness is similar. While it is normal for the first few days to spend a lot of time reassuring kids and giving them some extra TLC to deal with their homesickness, if this continues kids learn that they get one-to-one counsellor attention by being homesick, and the problem grows. It is often helpful to say, “I understand you are feeling upset, but right now we are all eating lunch and all of the campers need my attention. I promise to give you my full attention when we talk at bunk time.” This reassures the camper that her concerns will be heard, but also reminds her that there are other things to do besides dwelling on homesickness. Our intention is not to minimize the impact of her feelings, but rather to make sure they don’t take over the camper’s whole experience.

After 26 summers at Camp Kodiak, one of my favourite, most memorable moments was when Krista, a 13-year-old camper who talked about nothing but going home, took me aside on Visiting Day and told me she wanted to ask her parents to stay for second session. This represented a complete transformation for her. Krista stayed with us for many happy summers, becoming first an LIT, then a counsellor, and she often drew on her own experiences with homesickness to coach her campers through their first few difficult days.

 

References:

Cox, J. (. (2016, September 07). Class meetings help foster responsible, ethical student behavior. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from ThoughtCo: http://www.thoughtco.com/class-meetings-responsible-ethical-student-behavior-2081548

Huebner, D. (2006). What to do when you worry too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety. Washington, D.C.: Magination Press.

Kaplow, J. i. (2010, August 16). Homesickness isn’t really about home. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from CNN U.S. Edition: http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/08/16/homesickness.not.about.home/

Thurber, C. A. (2007, January). Preventing and treating homesickness. Pediatrics, 119(1), 1-10.

 

About the Author
Shari Stoch

Shari Stoch

Shari has worked at Camp Kodiak since it began in 1991. She has been the Academic Director since 2010, and is one of the Camp Directors. During the year, Shari works for the Peel District School Board as a special education teacher. She earned her Masters of Education from Queen’s University.