"Homesick and Happy": how experiencing and overcoming homesickness can empower your child

BJ Murray, Senior Operations Director, and his wife, Stephanie, are raising their daughter and son at Camp Wood YMCA. Despite living at camp, they still worried about homesickness with their kids' first experience as summer campers in 2016.

BJ Murray, Senior Operations Director, and his wife, Stephanie, are raising their daughter and son at Camp Wood YMCA. Despite living at camp, they still worried about homesickness with their kids' first experience as summer campers in 2016.

By BJ Murray

BJ Murray, Senior Operations Director at Camp Wood YMCA, shares a few tips for parents worried about how homesickness may affect their child’s summer camp experience.

Sending your child to camp can be hard. Believe me, I get it. I have two young children of my own that I sent them to overnight camp for the first time last year. And even though it was here at Camp Wood YMCA, it was really hard. Their mother and I were nervous and we missed them.

The thing is, I live on-site. Our kids’ cabins were only three hundred yards from where they sleep every night. What’s more, I know all of the staff really well. I even helped train them myself. I walk camp every day and have intimate knowledge of every program. I even certify all of our ropes staff. But, to be honest, I was never really worried about our kids’ safety or how the staff were going to act. I was more worried about homesickness.

I worried about my little boy and how he would do sleeping in a place that was not just across the house from his mother and I. I worried about my daughter feeling lonely since she deals with a certain level of social anxiety. Even as kids growing up at camp, we were worried they would still get homesick (even if they were staying close to home). In fact, we feared being able to see our family home from their cabins could actually make homesickness worse than if they were from some distant town.

So, when their session ended, I asked them if they’d been homesick. They both admitted that they had. They missed their mother, they missed Einstein the dog, Elfaba the cat, and they even missed me. They had times where they felt uncomfortable, where they were having to step out of their comfort zones to meet and live with totally new people. To tell you the truth, I am glad they missed me. Afterall, homesickness means they love and long for their family. However, despite being homesick, I was so proud that they made it through those tough feelings. I was thankful they had a chance to grow up some and become more independent. I was glad that they had the chance to work through the emotions of homesickness and to find out for themselves that at the end of the day, they can do things without mom and dad there. Many campers grow through the experience of homesickness just like ours did. It ends up being one of the best things you can do for your child as a parent--letting them go away for a bit to learn to do life on their own.

“Homesick and Happy”—a good read for anxious parents

I recently read a book all about homesickness called “Homesick and Happy” by Michael Thompson. I highly recommend it for parents who are thinking about sending their child to camp. I will warn you, there are some parts that he uses some not so camp-friendly words (but does so in context) and takes on some subjects that are more than I expected. But the book is excellent. Thompson talks about many of the benefits of camp, but mainly focuses how being away from home can be good for both camper AND parent. As a camp professional, I loved what he had to say. But as a parent, there were parts that made me take a hard look at how I raise my kids.

Throughout the book, Thompson focuses on how one of most important benefits of camp is independence.

 “Every child has to practice being independent and every parent has to practice letting his or her child be independent. Independence is like high jumping. You can’t clear the bar from a standing position. You have to run and jump and sometimes fail, then move the bar up and run and jump again. Over and over. As the parent, you have to watch them do it; you wince when they hit the bar, but you cannot do it for them and, unlike the SATs, you can’t arrange to have a tutor suddenly make it happen. Only the child can do it.”

In my experience at camps over the years, this is so true! It’s hard for parents to know their child may become homesick, but in the end, camp builds independence better than nearly any institution or experience out there. It allows them to face difficult feelings like homesickness or discomfort, and work through them in a completely safe environment. In fact 97% of camp children will report feeling homesick at some point during their stay (and my guess is the 3% who don’t are not being completely honest).

Don't worry about us, mom and dad! We're having fun and making friends!

Don't worry about us, mom and dad! We're having fun and making friends!

Preparing for homesickness and beating it.

Knowing how many campers will deal with homesickness, our staff work really hard to help our campers through it. Sometimes, the homesickness gets overwhelming and a deeply homesick child will begin to affect other campers in their cabin. In that case, the child may not quite be ready for camp and they may return home at some point during the week.  But this happens very rarely. In fact, most kids experience a brief bout of homesickness in the first day or so and then overcome it as they form friendships, have fun and begin to feel comfortable. The kids who stick it out despite feeling a little homesick are proud of beating it by the end of the week. They’ve learned that they can turn difficult feelings around and have a good time—growing in confidence and independence in the process.

Is your child going experience homesickness at camp? Probably. So what is a parent to do? Here is what Thompson recommends:

Have confidence in your camper’s ability to handle the challenge of being away.

  • If your child sees doubt in your face or in your words, they will increase the doubts they may already be feeling. Let them share their worries but reassure them of your confidence that they are capable of overcoming those fears.

Talk to your child about the possibility of homesickness.

  • Remain positive. Homesickness is just a sign they love and miss their family. It’s completely natural!

  • If you avoid talking about homesickness, your child won’t know that others have dealt with it and overcome it.

Arrange for your child to practice being away from home before camp starts.

  • Friends, aunts, grandparents – give them small steps to try being away from you. They’ll experience homesickness and learn how to push through it.

Let your child be a part of pre-camp preparations so they feel in control of the process.

  • Fill out paperwork with them and let them tell camp about themselves--what they like, what they don’t. This information is not only useful to camp staff as we prepare to welcome your child, it’s helpful for your child to think about how they will need to communicate their needs on their own during their time at camp.

  • Go through the list of skill builders (electives offered each week) and let them choose which ones they’re interested in. It may change when they get here, but at least they’ve thought through making their own choices and what skills they’d like to learn while at camp.

Visit the camp together.

  • Go to the camp’s Open House (Ours is Saturday, May 6th from 1-5 pm!). If you can’t attend the Open House, arrange a visit for just your family. We love to meet the campers and we have staff onsite at all times, so we are more than happy to give you a tour. Seeing the cabins, restrooms and dining hall help to relive a lot of camper concerns (where will I sleep, get dressed, shower, etc.).

These tips will all help to prepare your child for camp and the inevitable homesickness. But the biggest thing you can do for your child is let them overcome it. Give your child the chance to experience homesickness, to try something new even when they are nervous, to feel difficult feelings and to beat those feelings. Tell them how much you believe in them, giving them encouragement to attend and enjoy camp. It may be a new experience for you both—but it’s a valuable one. Your child will grow in confidence and independence and as a parent, you’ll get the joy of watching them grow new wings and soar.

So, one last question. What to do for the parent who is “kidsick” while the child is away? It’s a real thing, I promise. Of course, missing your child is a very good sign—we love them and love being witness to their adventures and triumphs. But while they’re at camp, we don’t get a daily check-in beyond spotting them in the daily photos posted to camp’s Facebook page.

I’d suggest that you enjoy your child’s time away. They are likely having a blast at camp and are in safe hands. Take time for yourself so when your child returns home, you’re refreshed and excited to hear about their adventures. Go on a date, catch up on Netflix, sleep in, go to a movie, relish the quiet. That freedom while your child is at camp, can be as beneficial to you as it is for your child. Enjoy it!

If you have any more questions about homesickness and how we work with children to conquer it, give us a call anytime. Our staff will be happy to answer your questions and help you take the important step of encouraging your child’s independence at summer camp. (620) 273-8641