How to clear the fear to make way for a formative experience

Portraits of summer camp showcase sun-splashed children playing sports, swimming and getting freckles. Not pictured is any sign of anxiety, a natural reaction to a new adventure and a several-week separation. All children experience a mixture of excitement and nervousness when summer camp approaches. For most, excitement trumps nerves, but some children develop anxiety serious enough to get in the way of what should be a fun, formative experience.

Summer camps hone many skills useful for future success: resilience, self-reliance and social adaptability. The camp experience — being away from home among peers — can help kids develop social skills, separate in a healthy way from parents and cultivate independence. Camp activities can help them build confidence by demonstrating mastery. Children are often ready for sleep-away camp around ages 10 to 12, although preparedness varies depending on age, experience and temperament.

Tools for taming anxiety

The key to helping your child get over pre-camp nerves is to acknowledge their feelings and give them tools to help them tame them.

  1. Let your child feel a sense of ownership over the experience. Involve them in picking the summer camp; familiarize them with the camp environment and teach them about camp activities so they can formulate expectations.

  2. Help your child get excited about camp: Take them shopping for new gear and focus them on fun things about camp that they can anticipate.

  3. Avoid focusing on what makes children anxious. Instead of asking leading questions like, “Are you nervous about horseback riding?” ask open-ended questions like, “How are you feeling about the horses?”

  4. Don’t trivialize their concerns or offer glib reassurances. “There’s nothing to worry about!” or “Everyone loves camp!” may discourage your child. Instead, show that you have empathy and acknowledge their concerns.

  5. Focus on concrete details in conversations leading up to and during summer camp. Avoid abstract issues like what it’s like to be away from home in favor of cabin details, meals in the lodge or campfire rituals.

  6. Reflect on your own formative experiences away from home and share positive aspects of them with your child. Show that you are willing to talk about the new things they’ll be doing, whether it’s eating new food, sleeping in a bunk bed, getting along with cabin mates or coexisting with insects.

  7. Go through “rehearsals.” A shorter-term sleepover or a night at Grandma’s will make it easier for your child to be away from home.

  8. Don’t linger at the bus stop. Keep the goodbyes short, as delaying just causes more mixed feelings.

  9. Make communication easy and accessible: Pack envelopes and stamps, outline a schedule for phone calls or emails if they’re part of the camp’s routine and make sure your child understands how easy it will be.

  10. Have goals for each letter or conversation, so your child will come away focused on how they are adjusting rather than on how much they want to come home.

  11. Try not to communicate your own anxiety; your child can pick up on your feelings even if you don’t verbalize them. What you want to share is your confidence in your child and the summer experience.

  12. Help your child formulate realistic, goal-oriented plans for making friends, toasting the perfect marshmallow or passing a swimming test. The thrill of completing these plans can give your child a feeling of success and take his mind off his anxiety.

  13. If your child has psychiatric or learning issues, don’t keep them a secret. Make sure the staff and counselors know anything they need to know to head off problems and maximize their experience. Do they wet the bed? Are they anxious about water? And let your child know that counselors are there to support them, whether they have a simple question or a larger problem.

Are you ready for your child to go to camp?

For parents who are anxious about sending kids to summer camp, remember that the cost of a good camp covers more than the arts and crafts; it includes a team of professionals and counselors committed to fostering social learning in your child.

Summer camp is a unique situation where your child engages with a large community of peers and learns how to interact socially in a less structured environment than school. This is a time for them to actively make decisions for themselves and develop a sense of self-reliance. Though you may be concerned and wish to intervene, your supportiveness will give your child room to take ownership of the experience themselves.

When should you worry that a child’s pre-camp anxiety is something problematic? You might be concerned if they demonstrate physical symptoms of fear: cold or clammy hands, butterflies, faintness, headache or nausea. Excessive tearfulness and hiding are also signs that something out-of-the-ordinary is going on. A child might have nightmares about separation or ask questions like, “What if something happens to me or you when I’m away?” If a child’s reaction is so severe that it interferes with normal functioning, it might be time to consult a mental health professional.