As we settle into cool mornings and short days, most people are thinking about getting back to “real” life… the rat race. Me? I’m thinking about summer, and the millions of kids who will be attending sleep-away camp, many for the first time.
Why am I thinking about sleep-away camp? I am a therapist who works with kids and families. I have a front-row seat to the struggles that many kids face today: too anxious to try something new, struggling with friendships, with self-confidence, turning into puddles in the face of adversity… the list goes on. But don’t worry, there’s good news. I am also the Director of Community Care at Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps in California, and I have a front-row seat to the myriad ways in which sleep-away camp has the potential to help children build critical social and emotional skills to last a lifetime.
Helping your child take advantage of all that is possible through a summer at sleep-away camp will take some mental and emotional preparation. It starts with asking, “What do I want my child to get out of a sleep-away camp experience?” Most of you will say “gain independence,” ”make friends,” and “have fun”. Camp has the potential to provide those and so much more. Here’s a list of my favorites, and what you can do to help:
Practice working through discomfort
The first time they go to camp, most children will experience some nervousness. They may even cry or have trouble sleeping (eating, pooping) at first. As difficult as this is, know that this is the very kind of discomfort that gives children the chance to learn and practice vital self-soothing skills in a safe and controlled environment. Working through discomfort now will set your child up for working through adversity on the playground, at the choir performance, their first break-up, college, a first job interview. This might sound hyperbolic, but it couldn’t be truer.
You can help by normalizing feelings of discomfort associated with adjusting to a new environment, and helping your child come up with a plan for how they will deal with them when and if they do happen. Who at camp can they talk to? What are some things they can do to help themselves fall asleep or calm themselves (breathing exercises, positive self-talk, etc.)?
In the end, the best thing you can do for your child is to trust them. Your child needs to know that you genuinely believe that they can do it. Even if it’s hard, even if it’s scary, THEY CAN DO IT. The way I see it, scary just means something great is about to happen.
Learn and practice self-advocacy
Effective self-advocacy, using one’s voice to get needs met, is a vital skill that has been eroded dramatically in young people over the last several years. I have seen it in my counseling practice and in my work with schools and camps. Camp counselors, while fabulous, are not mind readers. In order to get many of their needs met at camp, campers need to be able to use their voices.
You can help by giving your child opportunities to use their voice and witness firsthand the power of self-advocacy. Let them order for themselves in restaurants, ask a store clerk for help, ask the teacher a question, tell a friend what’s bothering them. This practice will help them to communicate when and if they need help at camp, and parents aren’t there to speak for them.
Learn and practice empathy
Empathy is the gift of being able to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to imagine what they may be feeling. It helps us build strong relationships with others and the world around us. Some people think that empathy is something a person either has or not, that it is innate. In fact, we can learn empathy through modeling, recognizing and practicing.
Sharing a (small and often chaotic) living space with eight to ten other people, many with differing backgrounds and abilities, is a hallmark of any sleep-away camp experience.
Having that kind of intimate exposure to another’s struggles, practices, and habits enables us to live with empathy day-to-day, finding ways to co-exist peacefully when habits don’t align, and finding ways to resolve disagreements when communication styles differ.
You can help by encouraging your child to view others’ challenges as opportunities to practice empathy rather than infringements on their way of life. Practice ways of offering assistance, rather than judgment, to a person who is struggling. Your child will get much more out of the experience of helping another person than they will out of being in first place or having the best performance or grade.
However, if someone’s challenges or habits are infringing on your child’s safety or boundaries, they now have an opportunity to utilize effective self-advocacy (see step 2).
Discover what matters in a friendship
So often, our children’s playmates are a matter of circumstances (children of parents’ friends, neighbors, classmates). Camp, while similar to a certain degree, enables children to be exposed to people from different backgrounds and places. Here, without adults’ preconceptions about race, class, gender or ability, children can experience friendship in its purest form. Children can learn friendship behaviors and characteristics, separate from the social constraints of the “real” world, that truly matter. This skill can help children know the qualities to look for in friends now and into adulthood.
Discover unknown talents and new passions
With its wide variety of activities and opportunities, camp enables children to try new things that sometimes push them out of their comfort zones. It is in pushing through this discomfort that children often discover talents they never even knew they had. My own child learned to play and perform guitar at sleep-away camp when he was just 8 years old, with the help and encouragement of a young counselor who had, himself, learned to play and perform guitar at camp just a few short years before.
Uncover leadership skills
There are very few areas in their lives where children have autonomy and decision-making potential. So often, life choices are made FOR children. Camp, by contrast, is a world created in large part by children and young adults. For teens in particular, most camps offer programming to help hone and cultivate leadership skills. Hundreds of young adults I’ve worked with over the years report that the very leadership skills they learned at camp have been useful throughout their lives in building successful careers.
Other helpful tips to prepare your child
Pick the right camp for your child based on their needs and interests. What is the camp’s mission? Do the camp’s mission and culture align with your values? (For example, if the camp is religious, but your child hasn’t had much exposure to religion, will they feel comfortable? If the camp’s programming is heavily sports-oriented, but your child doesn’t like competition, will they find common ground with other campers? Will your LGBTQ+ child feel accepted and valued?) Is the camp team responsive and communicative? Does the camp have programming to address your child’s unique needs? These questions and more are what you should consider as you search for the perfect camp.
Also, while it can be helpful to talk to others to gather information, please DO NOT base your decision on who else is going. If you can find a program that meets your child’s needs, they will thrive. Sending your child to a camp that is not a good fit just because a specific friend or neighbor is doing the same is a set-up for failure.
Consider your child’s age. For a typical child, starting camp at age 8-10 is ideal, but kids can be successful starting at any age. If you end up starting your child at age 11 or older, just prepare for a slightly longer adjustment period than for that of a younger child. Also, older children tend to be more self-conscious about feelings associated with adjusting to camp, and may therefore be less likely to open up to cabin-mates or counselors.
Communicate openly and honestly (and EARLY) with the camp about your child’s behavioral, emotional and/or academic challenges. Many parents think that because camp is “fun”, extreme behaviors and emotions that happen at school won’t materialize at camp. Unfortunately, the opposite is often true. Camp is a highly structured environment where nearly every waking moment has social, emotional and/or behavioral demands. Many camps have mental health professionals on staff to work hand-in-hand with parents, counselors (and your child’s teachers/therapists if necessary) to create and supervise comprehensive accommodation plans. The more prepared the camp is for your child, the better their chances for success.