Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Off To Summer Camp We Go!

How can you as parents insure a positive experience for your child in summer camp? This article is written in order to guide parents through some of the adjustment problems that both parents and children often experience before or at the beginning of their first summer camp experience.

As a licensed marriage, family and child therapist and also co-owner of Cali-Camp Summer Day Camp, it is my hope that the following ideas and information may help you to give your child the gift of an incredible summer at camp.

The camp experience, above all else, needs to provide your youngster with a safe physical and emotional environment. This safe place should also provide lots of interaction with other children and adult staff. These conditions allow your child to acquire social skills and to engage in activities that develop a sense of mastery over one's surroundings---one of our most important developmental tasks. Assuming that all of these criteria are met then, "having fun" is the operative phrase.

There are, of course, some variables that can influence a positive adjustment to camp. One of the most important factors is "separation anxiety" in either child or parent---and usually both.

Separation anxiety occurs in most children. It is developmentally appropriate from ages one to four, and manifests itself differently at each age. How a child resolves the issues around separation from parents is greatly influenced by the way in which the parents handle their own levels of anxiety about the camp experience and facing new situations.

It is normal for a child to feel some anxious moments before camp begins; it is even appropriate during the first couple of weeks. It is also appropriate for parents to be concerned about their child's adjustment to camp. However, be ever so mindful that your "worry mode", although often disguised and suppressed, is very apparent to your child. Their antennae are always up, and worry is very contagious.

For example, if a child repeatedly hears concerns of the parents about the bus ride, or sunburn, or his need to be with someone he knows, or negative messages about a parent's camp experience, this child will most certainly develop anxiety about going to camp.

As a therapist my message is: Be a concerned parent, but direct your concerns to the camp staff. Talk to them about your fears. Make a tremendous effort not to share your anxieties with your child. If your child voices fears then it is most important to hear all their worries. And then reassure! Reassure! Reassure! Try to separate your fears and concerns from your child's.

A child's anxieties are present in many different ways. Some are much less obvious than others. Behaviors to notice are as follows: verbally or behaviorally expressed resistance to going to camp such as stalling in the morning; or not getting out of bed; or clearly stating, " I don't want to go"; tears; bedwetting; or regressed behavior; sadness or withdrawal: that is not joining the group; boredom; dislike for counselor; hostile behavior towards other campers; and in some cases making up negative stories about other campers.

What are some of your options when a member of your family, perhaps even you as a parent, is experiencing anxiety about camp? My first suggestion is to call the camp office and ask to speak to a senior staff member or therapist if available.

I recommend that you bring your child to the facility several times before camp begins so that he or she can become familiar with the environment and learn the locations of the bathrooms, group meeting area, lunch area and the various activity areas.

I also recommend that campers ages 3-5 enroll for three days per week for at least two weeks at the outset; then after assessing the child, add or drop days accordingly. Days may be added provided there is space in the group and the bus. Although your child goes to pre-school or kindergarten 5 days a week and has fully adjusted; camp is an entirely different experience. One of the major differences is the fatigue level, especially in the beginning days of enrollment.

Campgrounds are usually much larger than the local school. Covering longer distances between activities is tiring for small people with little legs and little feet. An exhausted child can become a very cranky and unhappy child. Although our program at camp is developed to accommodate the needs of children ages 3-14 we have found that when camp begins it requires a stamina adjustment for all ages, including staff!

We invite our parents to visit anytime, and you may stay with your child for part of the day if arranged with staff. If you are noting anxiety we recommend that you try to bring the child to camp and stay an hour or two, then leave and pick the child up at an agreed upon time (the time could be earlier than the normal camp dismissal). It is very important that you are not late. Be there early or at least on time. Children suffer extreme anxiety when left waiting for a parent to show up.

When you put your young child on a camp bus, if he or she has a favorite toy or item to share with his group, encourage your youngster to do just that.

If something unusual has occurred at home let your child's camp staff know. Children often act out family trauma even though they don’t relate problems verbally.

We insist on a minimum 5-day enrollment because our experience tells us that some children need a fair amount of time to adjust and thus insure a positive camp experience. We hope that you as parents follow through with this by encouraging participation for at least five days. We want your child to have a wonderful summer and we need your help to achieve our goal.

We feel there are many options to look at before withdrawing a child from camp. However, if all else fails and withdrawal is the only solution we encourage you to applaud your child's effort and we hope you let your youngster know that next year there will be another opportunity to meet the challenges of summer camp and the joy that comes with all the successes that a child experiences when his camp experience is a happy one!

Written for parents sending children to camp for the first time, by Susan Rowen, a MFC Therapist for more than 29 years, and co-owner of Cali-Camp Summer Day Camp.

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