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Is my kid ready for sleep-away camp?
By Paula Sirois
How do you know when your child is ready for camp and it’s worth the expense? Clinical psychologist and author Julia Simens, of Incline Village, Nev., has worked with parents who face this exact decision. With more than 20 years as a school counselor, this mother of two has had endless conversations with parents about summer camp and how it impacted their children. She offered us some insight:
Q: Is camp a good idea for all kids?
A: Some children thrive in a camp like environment. Some kids are way out of their comfort zone, but all kids benefit from some type of camp like event because of the independence and social skills that it builds.
Q: How do you know if your kid is ready?
A: Children should attend camp when they have the emotional vocabulary to really express how they are feeling and would be able to articulate that to an adult in charge. This type of development is like a sliding scale, some children have it at 8 years old, others not until they are 12.
Q: Many parents look for camps that will foster new skills in their children, while others want to “toughen” them up. Which is better?
A: Parents must target the strengths of their child. If parents target camps that highlight the strengths of their child, they will see more self-determination and strength from their child when he or she returns. Empowerment results from being treated with respect and having your strengths acknowledged and enhanced.
Q: Once you’ve booked the camp, how should you prepare?
A: All parents should talk to their child about homesickness, even if their child has never been homesick before. So often we are not sure why or how homesickness hits, so all parents should help their child have a plan of action. Each child is unique, but some things seem to work well with many children.
Q: What specific things can be done to handle homesickness?
A: Make a list of all the other times they have been successful at overnights. Example: “Stayed with Grandma two weeks, stayed at a basketball camp one night.”
Q: If your child isn’t feeling good about the camp experience, what should you tell them to do before calling home?
A: Say to them, “At camp, if you are not feeling OK about the situation, get your thoughts on paper. If you are able to explain in writing what is really bothering you, you might be able to work out a plan on your own.” But calls home from camp should not be treated lightly or brushed off with words like “you only have two more days” or “you are a big girl.” What the child needs is to be heard and know that the parents care about those feelings.
Q: Any other tips on how to prepare the kids?
A: Parents should make sure the child knows about the camp nurse or the camp dorm-support person or others who are around to help them. Parents should make sure the camper has seen the website or handouts, so they understand how big the camp is and who is available to help kids.
Parents should not send anything with them unless they have talked to their child and they ask, “Would you like to take a photo?” “Would it be helpful if I put some friendly notes in your items?” Some kids feel more out of control when parents sneak things in on them.
Q: Is it OK to call and talk to a counselor?
A: Parents can also ask to speak to an adult and get some real facts, like “Who is my child sitting by at lunchtime?” “What do her sleeping habits look like?” “What adult has she connected to?” “What seems to be the hardest thing for her to do?” Then the parent should get back on the phone and talk to the child again. I call it a sandwich call. Top layer is the child’s actual feelings and emotion. The middle is the “meat” of the situation — the facts. The bottom layer is unconditional love and support from the parents.
To hear more from Simens, visit her blog at jsimens.com.