For parents and children, summer camp can be exciting, but it can also be anxiety provoking. The idea of summer camp creates thoughts and dreams of new adventures and lots of newfound independence for parents and children.
The weeks leading up to summer camp can bring excitement, questions and some jitters. All these feelings are very normal! The thought of being around new people, trying new activities and being in a new place can make both children and adults a little apprehensive. As parents and caregivers, it’s our job to help children navigate the waters leading up to summer camp.
Heidi Zvolensky, MD, a pediatrician at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist’s Clemmons Pediatrics, offers advice to help parents and caregivers empower their kids to feel ready and excited about camp – and to know when normal jitters become anxiety.
Is Your Child Ready for Camp?
Initially it is important to make sure that your child wants to go to summer camp and that the summer camp matches their interests and developmental level, physically, emotionally and mentally. They will have a much better time if they are involved in the decision-making process for summer camp, and you will need to decide if they are going to day camps, overnight camps or both. You and your child can research together to see which camps best meet everyone’s needs.
Before your child goes to summer camp it is important to make sure they have the skills they need to succeed. These skills differ depending on the type of camp they are attending. For example, if your child is attending overnight camp, it is essential to make sure they are comfortable sleeping away from home. It's good to try a few overnights with friends or family before tackling an overnight camp.
Also, make sure your child feels comfortable advocating for themselves and making their needs known in a new situation with new adults. This will help them if they need to tell an adult they aren’t feel well, are homesick or just need to talk about any concerns. It is helpful if your child is able to perform their own daily care, including showering, toileting, and brushing teeth. It’s good to start practicing this independence many months before camp begins so they feel confident in their skills!
What Steps Can I Take to Prepare for Camp?
First and foremost, make sure your child is interested in camp and has been involved in the process. You can answer important camp questions together by doing your research and even visiting the camp. Some question you can ask are:
- What is the main focus of the camp (ie. sports, traditional summer camp, etc.)?
- What is the camp schedule?
- What are the health and safety policies, including Covid 19 policies and procedures?
- Is there a nurse/doctor on staff? What is their medication policy?
- What is the camper-to-staff ratio?
- What are their policies around challenging behaviors?
- Is there a visitors’ day?
- What is their approach to homesickness?
What should my child bring to camp?
Most camps provide families with packing lists. Make sure to pack sunscreen, sunglasses, bug repellant and any necessary medications. Also, provide your child’s camp with any important medical history in the event of an emergency.
It is also helpful to send some special comfort items from home for overnight camp, such as a special stuffed animal or toy, books, their favorite blanket or pillow, a picture of the family including pets, and some self-addressed stamped postcards so they can send you a note. For overnight campers, slip some special notes from home into their suitcases.
You can hide little love notes in their shoes, socks or toiletries. It will make them feel extra special when they get your notes that say I love you, I’m proud of you, have fun, or any special messages you want to send!
What if my child is experiencing jitters?
It’s normal for a child to feel nervous before embarking on a new activity, especially overnight camp. Dr. Zvolensky says her older son would feel this way and would describe it as butterflies in his stomach. “I would always tell him that this meant he was doing something new and exciting. It got us through many new experiences and helped him develop the confidence he needed to try new things,” she says.
If a child is feeling nervous, talk with them about prior successes and how well they navigated those new experiences. Reassure them that these feelings are normal. Talk about what strategies they have used in the past and what they have previously found to be helpful in new situations.
If your child is experiencing anxiety that you feel may carry over into their camp experience, talk with the camp counselors. They can help you and your child through this situation.
If your child’s jitters seem to be more than just jitters and are causing them distress, it may be helpful to talk with a counselor or your pediatrician to help work through these issues.
But camp jitters aren’t only for campers. As parents we can also feel anxious about sending our children off to camp. It’s important to educate yourself about the camps you are exploring for your children. This will help to decrease your own anxiety. Kids are very perceptive, so try not to talk about your concerns in front of your child, so they don’t turn them into their own worries.
What are the benefits of camp?
Summer camp is such an enriching experience for children. They can learn new skills, gain newfound independence and develop lifelong memories and friendships. If we work with our children to set them up for camp success, they will develop confidence in themselves and their ability to tackle new situations with pride.
Here’s to a healthy, happy, safe season of summer camp!