Questions about “separation anxiety” typically arise at the beginning of the school year.  That’s when many children and parents experience the range of emotions connected to children being in school by themselves for the first time. Children taking steps away from patents toward independence is, of course, part of life, which parents expect and are pleased about.  At the same time, there are bound to be some tugs at the heartstrings at the realization that this is happening.  Children, too, are likely to have some trepidation at steps away from mom and dad, some children feeling more ready than others to take these steps.

Actually, there are other “firsts” aside from school that are also associated with such feelings.  Often, it may be a first time sleepover at a friend’s house, or even a grandparent’s.  But a real big one that comes up at this time of year is sleep-away camp.  For some reason, the reactions of children to sleep-away camp, their tears and letters home, have often been a source of humor and jokes. 

Along these lines, this past week a humor piece turned up written by the actor and playwright, Jesse Eisenberg.  He calls it “Separation Anxiety Sleepaway Camp”, writing about a hypothetical camp day schedule in which every activity caters in some way to campers’ homesickness and missing mom.  In it, there is a strong implication that mom, herself, is provoking such feelings through her own anxiety and overprotectiveness.  For example: “After swimming, each camper will have an opportunity to call his mom to let her know that he has not drowned.”  Also, at lunchtime, “Campers dig into the lunches that their mothers have meticulously prepared and Fed Exed overnight.”

Of course, we know that humor often consists of an exaggeration of truths that we can recognize. Although there may be some truth to that portrayal for some children and parents, for parents generally its greater value may lie in thinking through when and how sleepaway camp can be a positive experience for their children.  Although camp offers many benefits, it does not have to be a rite of passage for every child.  The age of the child, his or her personality and interests, the nature of the camp, and the length of time of the stay away are all things to be considered.

Clearly, parents have to know their own child, and make a judgment about the child’s readiness for this kind of separation and capacity for adjustment to new situations.  Hopefully, a child has had some shorter and easier kinds of visits away from home before entering into a sleepaway camp experience.  Camps themselves seem to have become more realistic, many offering short stays of a week or two instead of the older practice of an entire summer stay, or a month at best.  Many parents have found age ten to be an appropriate age for sleepaway camp, although some children of eight or nine may be ready.

Perhaps a more difficult question is how to respond to a child away who is homesick, sounds unhappy, and wants to come home.  It can be tough for a parent to hear those pleas and not want to yield to a child’s wishes.  This takes some thought, because despite what a child is saying at the moment, leaving camp early may ultimately feel like a failure experience, which is not helpful for child or parent.  It is useful to get the input of a mature person at camp who knows the situation to help evaluate what is going on.  Most of the time, what is happening is an adjustment bump which a child can be helped over by an understanding adult.  Although we don’t want to ignore a situation that is serious, helping a child master a difficult situation can be growth producing.  Knowing that you were able to deal with something that was hard is rewarding for both child and parent. 

I discussed this question with my ten year old granddaughter who went to sleepaway camp for the first time last year.  In her opinion nine was the right age for her, but that it would depend on the child.  Here is what she said, “The first night was weird because I was used to day camp, and most of the people in my cabin I had never met before.  But still, I met new people, so that was good.”

I asked her what parents should do if a child called homesick, wanting to come home.  Her advice:  “Parents should talk to the counselor and see if something could be done to make the homesick kid feel a little more welcome.  Maybe by introducing the child to other people in the cabin, making up a game or doing something the child would like so she would forget about being homesick and start to like camp.  If the child absolutely needs to come home the parents should come and get her, unless they know their child would adjust.”  I asked how the parents would know that, and she said, “They might if the child had had a sleepover at a friend’s where parents knew they would be okay for the night.  The parents would already have had some experience with that.”

Her final words were, “If a child leaves and comes home she will want to go back when the homesickness is gone.  If I were that person, I know that if I went home I’d want to go back.  When my friends came home and they had such a good time, I would be upset.”  

And a child shall lead you.


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