Practice Makes Perfect
January 9, 2018 by
Dr. Christopher Thurber
All people spending time away from home and family feel some pangs of homesickness. For children at camp, my research suggests that 80 per cent aren’t bothered by these normal feelings of missing home. The other 20 per cent do experience distress. For some, the basic functions of a camper — eating, sleeping, and participating in activities — become difficult and the emotional pain seems unbearable.
Fortunately, even the most intense homesickness is largely preventable. And the cornerstone of prevention — practice time away from home — is actually fun when spent gradually. Here’s how it works: Children learn to cope with distress out of necessity. When they’re enjoying life and feeling happy, that’s wonderful. But in that state, they’re not learning much about coping with negative emotions.
Along comes a stressor, such as misplacing a favourite toy, getting teased by a sibling, slogging through homework, or being transported to a place without parents, and things get interesting. Depending on the child’s temperament, past experiences, and interpretation of the event in question, negative emotions, such as anxiety, depression, frustration, and anger ensue. Whereas a small percentage of children give up and do nothing, most devise some way of coping.
For the frustration that results from a misplaced toy, the child might initiate a search or turn to another toy. For the anger that’s ignited by a teasing episode, the child might fight back, walk away, or tell a parent.
For depression that accompanies a difficult homework assignment, perhaps the young person tells herself that it’s for her own good or will help her get a better grade. And for feelings of homesickness that accompany exposure to
a novel environment, children teach themselves to stay busy, make friends, and keep time in perspective.
Naturally (and I mean that literally), arranging practice time away from home prompts children to develop previously untapped coping skills — different things they can think or do to help themselves feel better when it hurts. Most parents are surprised when I tell them that younger children are at no greater risk for intense homesickness than older children. Indeed, chronological age is a far less accurate predictor of homesickness intensity than previous experience away from home.
It’s not all automatic, though. Parents play an essential role in coaching their sons and daughters on the best ways to cope by adopting these strategies:
• Spending practice time away from home (of course) without parents or phones.
• Arranging a play date with another camper in your area, to spark social connection at camp.
• Counseling parents to refrain from making pick-up deals, such as “If you feel homesick, I’ll come and get you.” (You can guess how that inevitably concludes.)
• Counseling parents to refrain from sharing their own anxiety or ambivalence, such as “Have a great time at camp. I don’t know what I’ll do without you.” (Try “You’ll have a blast!” instead.)
• Gathering lots of information about the daily schedule and facilities at camp. The more you know before you go, the more at home you’ll feel.
• Ensuring that new campers participate in preparation for camp, such as shopping and packing together with their parents. Posting a calendar on the wall that indicates opening day and the session length.
Learning to cope with homesickness will not only make future separations from home easier, it also helps children develop an important life skill: emotion regulation. Like camp itself, the preparation for camp builds character, confidence, and self- esteem. Just don’t expect your son or daughter to be able to regulate the joy they’ll experience. Nothing puts an indelible smile on kids’ faces better than the “I did it!” feeling that results from successfully completing their first overnight camp stay.
Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist, father, and the co-author of “The Summer Camp Handbook.” He created a homesickness prevention DVD-CD set called “The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success” that lowers the intensity of first-year campers by 50%, on average. Visit DrChrisThurber.com to learn more.