Time for Camp?

Parents wonder if preteens will experience separation anxiety at sleep away camp. Learn how to tell if yours is ready, and then ease the transition.

For many tweens, sleep away camp is an exciting adventure. Spending a few weeks away from home can give a child more confidence and reinforce his feelings of love and connection toward his parents. Camp is often the first time that many tweens leave their families for weeks on end, so its normal for some kids to feel homesick, at least initially. But parents sometimes worry that his going away will trigger feelings of loss and separation in their child.

Personality and Preference

With all children, temperament plays a large role in determining camp readiness. Kids who are independent, easygoing, and outgoing, enjoy socializing, or seek new experiences may want to go to sleep away camp as soon as their parents will allow it. Those who prefer one-on-one socializing, private time, or immersing themselves in one particular activity may not be ready for, or even like, an overnight camp. These children may prefer to spend their summer at home and to attend day camps or other activities.

Some children—especially those who had difficulty adjusting to their new homes or who are uncomfortable in new situations—may have separation anxiety or new fears of rejection. They may need to call their parents often while away, feel shy about making new friends or trying new things, or experience other symptoms of anxiety.

Preparing a child for sleep away camp is essential. Even kids who express a desire to go to camp, and who seem to be independent, benefit when parents take steps to smooth the transition (see “Doing the Prep Work”).

Also, keep in mind that some kids who seem to enjoy camp melt down and regress when they return to the safe confines of home. They may test the boundaries of their parents love, or “act out” to see whether their parents will tolerate their new independence. (Kids will sometimes express their emotions in extreme ways, or try to bend rules they previously followed.) Parents can help their child readjust to family life by sticking to familiar routines and giving them the love and security they need.

Doing the Prep Work

If your tween expresses an interest in going to sleep away camp:

  • Include her in choosing one. Some children feel more “in control” at camps that focus on one of their favorite activities. Your child may also want to go to the same camp as a close friend or sibling.
  • Practice “mini-separations.” Have your tween sleep over at a friend’s or relative’s house for a night or two before going away for a longer period.
  • Pack some symbolic items. A family picture, a favorite pillow, a stuffed animal, or another special object can comfort your child and remind him of home.
  • Talk it out. Offer your child some bedtime rituals, self-soothing techniques, and strategies she can use, in case she experiences separation anxiety.
  • Reinforce your love. Before your child leaves, and while he’s gone, tell him how much you love him. Remind him of your strong family ties through letters and calls.
  • Focus on the positive things he’ll be doing at camp. Don’t dwell on how much you’ll miss him. This can make the separation even harder.
  • Discuss her return to family life. Let your child know that you’ll do something special shortly after she returns, and that you’ll be celebrating her new milestone!

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Based in Pennington, NJ