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When your kid hates camp

What should you do when your kid hates camp? You gave into the begging, saved all year long, paid your deposit in March, and set your kid off to camp last week. And today, there he is on the phone, begging to come home. Do you harden your heart and make him tough it out? Or grab the nearest vehicle and race to his side?

Sad Child at Camp

It’s not easy to know that your child is unhappy. And when you’re separated by miles — and maybe even state lines — it’s incredibly difficult to hear that sad voice on the phone and not know what to do.

Homesickness is a normal part of the camp process, though, and there’s no reason to panic at the first sound of tears.

Don’t commit to anything immediately

Tempting as it is, don’t make promises to your child over the phone. In the rush to make everything all better, it’s easy to promise things you might not be able to deliver later, like a transfer to a different bunk, less stringent rules, better food, or whatever your child is after. Don’t fall into that trap.

Instead, stay calm, and assess the situation objectively. Your child is homesick. This happens. And you need more facts in order to figure out the best course of action. Ask if there’s a specific problem you should know about. If no more information is forthcoming, what you tell your child on the phone is, “I love you, and I’m sorry that you’re feeling this way, but you should know that it’s totally normal to feel the way you are. I’m not making any promises until I have more information. I can tell you that I am going to speak to the camp, and I will keep you updated.” In the meantime, the American Camp Association recommends setting goals with your child — for example, tell him to pay attention to three times he smiles in the next 24 hours, and to tell you about those times when you speak next.

Gathering information

Your next step is to speak to an adult — several, actually. You are a parent, and you have rights. Don’t let anyone give you the runaround. Start by calling the camp director. Let him know that you’re aware that homesickness is a common, generally temporary situation, but also let him know that you’re an involved parent.

Be ready to ask these 4 questions: 

  • Has he heard anything specifically about your child?
  • What’s the camp’s typical response to homesickness?
  • Have those actions been taken with your child, and what was the response?
  • What else does he think you need to know about the current situation?

With those answers in hand, set a time to speak with your child’s counselor — don’t agree to wait more than 12 hours for that call. When you talk to the counselor, ask if something specific happened to upset your child. Find out whether he has made any friends, and who they are. What activities have taken place so far? Is your child always sad, or are there times when he is happier? Are there any noticeable triggers?

After you’ve spoken with the director and the counselor, it’s time to talk to your child again. You should have the names of your child’s friends at this point, so ask specifically about them. See if you can get any more specific information about what’s upsetting your child, and find out if the situation has improved at all from his perspective since you last spoke.
Ask him flat out, what would have to happen for you to enjoy camp? Maybe it’s as simple as moving from a top to a bottom bunk, having an account at the canteen, or more mail from home.

Follow up

Don’t exacerbate the situation by speaking with your child daily until the situation resolves. Rather, set a clear timeframe for moving forward. For example, you could tell your child that you’re mailing him a letter each day this week, but that you won’t speak again until Sunday. In the meantime, you can check in the with camp director daily or every other day until you feel it’s no longer necessary.

Trust the director and the counselor to do their jobs. Your child is not the first to endure homesickness, and he certainly won’t be the last. And the experience — of surviving homesickness and the full camp experience itself — will serve him well for the rest of his life.

Tell us: How have you helped your child deal with homesickness at camp? Comment below!

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