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5 Ways Camp helps kids… and 5 ways to help kids cope with camp

I remember my first summer camp experience.  I was 7 years old and had sold a TON of Thin Mints in order to go.  I remember the excitement of leaving home on my own for the first time; meeting my camp counselors and bunk mates; and carrying my cup around on a string.  I remember gathering firewood and watching a counselor fearlessly face down the rattle snake outside our cabin.  I swam and hiked and roasted marshmallows.  It was a great experience for me.

Going to summer camp is a quintessential childhood activity.  And, camp is good for kids.   Camp is a perfect place to help children optimize their psychosocial development. It is at camp that children get the experiences they need to boost their coping strategies. That’s because camps challenge kids A good camp experience will challenge children and will help them build a strong, resilient self-image.  Here’s how:

  1. They learn to form new relationships with peers and with adults.  Kids learn how to interact with others – both their age and grownups – on their own without mom or dad around for backup.
  2. Their confidence level soars as they master new skills. A good camp counselor will help your child find things to feel proud of.
  3. They learn that they CAN handle it.  Camps help children feel in control of their lives. Children who experience themselves as competent will be better problem-solvers in the classroom as well.
  4. Horizons are broadened by new experiences.  At camp the food is different.  The beds are different.  The people are different.  The bathroom is different.  The world of a child grows as he experiences all of these different ways of doing “normal” things.
  5.  Everyone belongs around the campfire. Camps are great at building a sense of common purpose and teamwork.   

I also remember the first time I sent my son to camp.  He was 8 years old.  No cookies were involved but I was so excited about the prospect of him having a camp experience like mine.  He did not share my enthusiasm. He was anxious.  He worried over every possible issue.  He obsessed about what could go wrong. He was sure he was going to have a terrible time; that he would forget something; that no one would like him.  So, how can we help anxiety-prone children cope with the idea of camp?  Here are some ideas:

1. Involve him in decision-making. Allow your child to have some input into the process from the beginning. Knowledge about what to expect can help ease worry. Be careful not to overdo on this one – tailor your child’s involvement according to his own personality and don’t overwhelm him with a lot of details.

2. Help her focus on the positive. This is a terrific time to help build optimism muscles in your child.  Remind her of all the fun things she has done away from home recently.  Help her project positive experiences to anticipate at camp – making smores, going swimming, or earning a special badge.  Again, tailor this to your child taking care to choose activities that won’t push her worry button.  For example, “think of all the new friends you will make” would not work well for a child with social anxiety who might immediately think “What if no one likes me and I don’t have anyone to talk to for the whole week?!”

3. Practice at home.  Camp life is different from home life.  Help your nervous child adjust by practicing new skills in the secure environment of home.  Pack a toiletries kit and practice taking a “camp-style” shower; use the mess kit at the dinner table; practice going to bed independently.

4. Talk… and listen.  Let your child talk about his worries.  Listen without trying to dispute his concerns.  Reassure him that it is natural to feel a little nervous  when facing something new. Express confidence in his ability to cope.  Share stories about your own anxiety as a new camper.  Be sure to include how everything worked out great.

5. Control your own emotions.  No meltdowns at the bus!  Seeing you cry will make your child feel like she can’t leave.  Try not to prolong the goodbyes either.  A quick hug, lots of smiles and off she goes.  Send her off free from you own needs and let her have the time of her life while she is away from you.

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