Summer Days: Sending Preteens Off to Camp

The first, notable step toward independence, whether it is a maiden sleepover, solo trip to grandparents, or summer camp experience, can challenge girls—not to mention their parents. It is perfectly natural for tweens and even teens to feel pangs of homesickness when they miss their friends, families, pets, and the comforts of familiar surroundings. By the same token, even when parents are convinced that daughters will love camp and benefit from the experience, it is still normal to miss them. To prepare tweens for a first camp experience, remind them of previous transitions they handled well, such as making new friends and getting used to new teachers when you moved or when they started each new school year. What helped her back then? Mention that it is common to feel homesick, especially at bedtime, but that these feelings usually pass quickly. Arm your daughter with new strategies, too. For example, getting involved in a fun activity, talking with a friend, or confiding in her favorite counselor can help. Many girls express and work through feelings at camp in letters home, artwork, journal writing, and other creative outlets.

If you get an emotional or even alarming missive from camp, don’t panic. The unhappy feelings that prompted it may well have lasted only minutes. If in doubt, call the camp director or unit head for reassurance. In a classic scenario, you will likely hear: “You don’t mean THAT Susie, the one we call Sunshine, who’s always smiling and surrounded by her bunkmates?” Find out the camp’s specific policies on making and receiving phone calls. Be aware that calling camp can be tricky. It is usually best not to call during the first week while everyone is adjusting. Even thereafter, girls often feel pressured to convey too much within five-minute phone calls. They can feel let down afterward or experience a surge of homesickness. (The same is true of visiting day!)

Your best bet is to send brief notes or cards as frequently as you can, as getting mail is a treasured moment of every camper’s day. In your letters, avoid conveying your own anxiety, be cheerful, and don’t mention what your daughter is missing at home. In fact, adopt a breezy tone something on the order of, “Nothing much is going on; it’s kind of boring around here.” (A brief note about “care packages”: Small treats and tokens of your affection are one thing, but excessive amounts of candy, expensive items, and other indulgences send a different message altogether.)

It is rare for a child to come home early, but it does happen. A mismatch between the camp and your tween can take the fun out of the experience. She may be uncomfortable with certain kids in her bunk or worried about something at home, real or imagined. Or she may simply not be ready. If the camp calls, try to listen objectively. What do they suggest? Whatever the outcome, the situation should be treated matter of factly, not as a failure or tragedy. Camp is optional and should be enjoyable.

When all goes well, summer camp can become a beloved ritual and refuge where your daughter returns year after year and creates cherished, lifelong friendships. She can develop new skills as well as the inner resources and self-confidence to leave home later on, such as to become a summer intern or to go away to college.

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