Sleepaway camp can be one of the most fun and formative experiences in a child’s life. It is also rife with new challenges that children do not typically face at home, including being away from caretakers for an extended period of time, sleeping in a new place, and daily exposure to new activities, people, and expectations. Camp can be anxiety-provoking for even the most adventurous child, so it stands to reason that it might pose unique challenges for children who are learning to cope with anxiety.

Many parents struggle with how best to prepare and support their child through their sleepaway camp adventure. Read on for some ideas to guide you through this exciting and challenging process.

Set the Stage

Include your child in the process of researching and choosing a camp. This will help ensure that the camp is the best match for your child’s interests (rather than, for example, choosing a camp simply because a family member had attended in the past). By getting involved in the process early on, your child will also have more information about the camp and will be able to get excited about specific activities and experiences in the summer to come.

Similarly, include your child in the preparations for camp, including shopping for camp gear, packing, and looking through the daily schedule together. It can be tempting to just avoid the topic of camp or to shop and pack for your child if they are feeling nervous about camp; however, children’s worries often grow in the absence of information. Additionally, by talking about and planning for camp, you can assess if your child has any particular worries and help them think through how they might handle them. For example, if you learn that your child is worried about trying a new camp activity like horseback riding, you can help them brainstorm about how they might handle the situation (e.g., tell their counselor that they are a beginner, take deep breaths, remind themselves that the camp would not let them do something unsafe, etc).

In these conversations you can also let your child know that it is normal to feel homesick and that those feelings will ebb and flow. Do you best to validate their feelings while keeping a positive, bravery-focused tone. For example, you might say “I can understand why you’d worry about feeling homesick since you’ll be away for a week. At the same time, I am so proud of you for being brave and trying this new experience.”

Hold a Dress Rehearsal (or Two!)

Consider having your child go on extended sleepovers with family members or a close friend to practice being away from home for multiple nights. When they are away, consider only talking on the phone or texting at pre-determined times to simulate what communication at camp would be like. After these sleepovers, process with your child what the experience was like for them. Highlight their bravery and the facts that nothing bad happened and that they are very capable of handling multiple nights apart from you.

Model Bravery

Sleepaway camp can often be as anxiety-provoking for parents as for their children! If this is the case for you, do your best to keep your worry thoughts and feelings to yourself. Project confidence to your child in their abilities to handle camp and admiration of their willingness to try something new. You might also consider sharing some of your own sleepaway camp experiences, such as how you made friends and had a wonderful time in spite of initial worries. At camp drop-off, keep your goodbyes short and sweet then be on your way so your child can dive right into the experience.

Balance Communication with Independence

Before your child leaves for camp, make a plan together about how and when you will communicate. Will you talk on the phone? Send emails? Letters? If the latter, pack pre-stamped and addressed envelopes to make letter writing easy for your child. Keep the tone of your letters upbeat and focus on their effort and bravery in this new challenge, rather than asking if they are homesick or telling them how much their family members or pet misses them.

If your child’s camp allows the use of technology like cell phones, have a discussion with your child about how often you will communicate in this way (i.e., one text per day? An email or brief call each afternoon?). Support your child in finding a balance between staying in touch and pushing themselves to stay off of their phone and really throw themselves into the camp experience. Though frequent contact with home can feel very comforting to kids in the moment, it can actually exacerbate their anxiety over time as it makes it difficult to fully get a chance to settle in and have fun. Additionally, too frequent phone use deprives kids of the opportunity to learn that they can handle camp without constant reassurance from you.

Sleepaway camp offers an amazing opportunity for growth for children and parents alike. As you send your child off on this adventure, bear in mind that, like all major childhood milestones, adjusting to sleepaway camp is not always a perfectly smooth road. However, with preparation, encouragement, and parental support from the wings, the majority of children end up enjoying the experience immensely.

by Julia Martin Burch, PhD

This Article's Author

Julia Martin Burch, PhD is a staff psychologist at the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital in Boston. Dr. Martin Burch completed her training at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.She works with children, teens, and parents and specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety, obsessive compulsive, and related disorders. Outside of her work at McLean, Dr. Martin Burch gives talks to clinicians, parent groups, and schools on working with anxious youth.

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