“I Want to Go Home:” Helping Your Child Overcome Summer Camp Homesickness

BY RACHEL SIMMONS

Welcome to summer camp season, that time of year when an epidemic illness sweeps across America, striking down children of all ages: homesickness.

As the Girls Leadership Institute summer camp director, I spent countless hours consoling girls longing for home. I’ve also counseled desperate, angry parents ready to jump in their cars, speed towards camp and commando their kids out.

If your child is away at camp this year, and you get that mournful e-fax, letter or phone call, you have my deepest sympathy. There is nothing more anguishing than knowing your child is alone and suffering. Below is some advice and wisdom I’ve accumulated over the years to help you get through this homesickness season.

Remember That Homesickness Comes and Goes. Homesickness is an illness cured by distraction. Most of the time, kids are sad during brief moments of the day. The most common flare-ups occur during unstructured time, like getting ready for bed, or moments when kids are asked to think about home, like during letter writing time or phone calls.

The majority of homesick kids spend most of their days laughing, playing and being, well, happy campers. That means you end up hearing from them at their worst, and not seeing them at their best (how’s that for a raw deal?).

Check in with yourself. Emotional intelligence experts say that knowing you have a feeling is different from just being in that feeling and acting without thought or reflection. When your child is homesick, there are two areas of emotion to look out for within yourself. First, it’s your job as a parent – indeed, it’s built into your biology – to be emotionally activated by the sound or thought of your child’s distress. And by emotionally activated, I do mean literally wanting to get in your car, drive to camp, strangle the staff and pull your kid. Once you reflect on this important drive, your self-awareness will prevent you from letting it overwhelm your response.

The second area to reflect on is your own experience with abandonment and parental empathy. Are you sensitive to feeling abandoned, or to others feeling that way? Did you grow up with parents who did not take your emotions seriously? If the answer is yes to any of these, you may be reacting to your child’s homesickness with an intensity that is more about your own past than your child’s experience. That doesn’t mean your emotions are “wrong,” only that they should be understood and acted on in context.

As you well know, you sent your child to camp both to enjoy herself and to give her an opportunity to live independently. If you act rashly and pull her now, you take away her chance to overcome her homesickness and accomplish a huge life challenge. That’s not to say that she might not end up coming home, but the decision should be as thoughtful as possible.

Trust Camp Staff. This one’s very important. If staff tell you that your child is okay except for those tough times mentioned above, believe them. I once had a parent tell me, “You have been with my daughter for 11 days. I have been with her for 13 years. You don’t know her at all.” No, staff can’t compete with a parent’s knowledge of her child, but they do see her laughing and playing most of the day – and parents don’t.

Remember that you trusted the camp enough to take care of your child for a reason.
The staff has no interest in making your child suffer unnecessarily. They are experienced with homesickness, and they know the difference between a kid who can make it and a kid who might not.

The most effective response to homesickness will happen with you and staff working in partnership. Ask what staff are doing to support your child and find out how you can help. For example, the camp may ask you to refrain from offering to bring your child home for at least a few days. Do your best to work together.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. Overcoming homesickness and sticking out a tough time is an incredible accomplishment for your child. The knowledge that I did it on my own is developmental gold. This is the raw material of resilience, the ability to manage stress and overcome difficulty, and it is associated with less depression and anxiety, and general life success.

Conversely, having to come home is a loss that your child will not soon forget. Keep in mind that pulling your child from camp is not just about responding to a single moment. The experience of not finishing may inspire a new set of painful emotions in your child: feelings of failure, disappointment and regret.

Don’t Dwell. If you do decide to bring your child home, exercise caution in framing the experience. Focus on the positives and what she accomplished in the days she was there. Remind her of what she enjoyed. Emphasize that she may not have been ready this summer, but maybe she will be next year. Praise her efforts and hard work, even if they did not result in success this time around. If you focus on the failures of the camp, or other kids, it can make it easy for your child to bow out next time, and the time after that.

Rachel Simmons is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, and The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence. As an educator, Rachel works internationally to empower young women to be more authentic, assertive and self-aware. Rachel is a Vassar graduate and Rhodes Scholar from New York. The cofounder of the Girls Leadership Institute, she is an experienced curriculum writer and educator. She currently develops leadership programs for undergraduates at the Center for Work and Life at Smith College. She has previously worked as a classroom teacher in Massachusetts and South Africa. Rachel was the host of the PBS television special, “A Girl’s Life,” and her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Atlantic, and Slate. Rachel serves on the board of the College Women’s Leadership Educators affiliate of the AAUW. Rachel has appeared on Oprah and the Today show, and appears regularly in the national media. Odd Girl Out was adapted into a highly acclaimed Lifetime television movie. Rachel lives in western Massachusetts with her daughter. For more information, please visit www.rachelsimmons.com.