Getting Ready for Camp

Attending summer camp for the first time is an important milestone in any child’s life. Whether it is a two week camp or one that lasts the entire summer, it is important to prepare your children for what to expect while at camp. It is normal for your little one to be nervous about the time they are going to spend at camp, but there are things that we can do to ease some of their anxieties. We spoke with an expert in childhood anxiety, Joanna Robin, PhD for her advice on how to ease your child into this transition and let them have a successful time at summer camp and we also spoke with some fellow Big City Moms for tips on what has worked for them.

Separation anxiety during the toddler years is very common and most children grow out of it. However, there are several things that you can do to make the separation transition easier. Here are strategies that you can use to help separate with your child at summer camp this year. These strategies will also be helpful if your child is starting preschool in the fall.

Prepare your child for the start of camp.

If possible, try to visit the camp with your child before the session begins. Bring a camera along to take photographs of your child enjoying himself. Look through these photos in the weeks before camp starts to help your child become familiar with the camp. In addition, find out the daily schedule and the counselors’ names ahead of time so that you can talk to your child about what the day will be like and who will take care him. If your child is interested in pretend play, you can also role play dropping him off at camp successfully. Finally, borrowing books at your local library on starting camp (or preschool) may lead to valuable discussions about your child’s fears.

Talk about emotions.

As parents we tend to offer reassurance right away, assume we know what he or she is afraid of, or minimize concerns (“There is nothing to be scared of. Camp will be fun!”). Instead, try to normalize your child’s anxiety and ask him about what he fears will happen at camp. Try to validate your child’s concerns while helping him feel brave. For example you could say, “It is okay to feel scared about camp. I felt scared too when it was my first day. Then I started to have so much fun and I began to feel brave! I wonder if this might happen to you.”

Show confidence.

When the first day of camp arrives, you might feel your own anxiety rise. Keep those worries to yourself and show your child that you are confident in his ability to rise to the challenge. Don’t ask your child permission to leave when it is time for drop off. And definitely don’t sneak away without saying goodbye to your child — this will only increase your child’s anxiety level. Give one hug and one kiss and keep going out the door!

Ask Camp counselors/teachers for help.

Children with separation anxiety may benefit from knowing that there is a safe person at school or camp they can talk with if they are having anxiety. Ask the head counselor to play this role for your child, as this person usually has more experience than the typical camp counselor.

Have them pick out a first day of camp outfit.

It’s important to get your child involved in getting ready for camp. This will get them excited about the days ahead. To help them prepare, let them pick out a special outfit for the first day of camp. They will be proud to wear it and show it off to all of their new friends at camp on the first day.

Have your child help make their lunch.

Let your child help you make their lunch. Have them pick out special snacks to pack in their lunch. By having them help, it will help get them excited to eat it the next day at camp.

Give them a security item.

If separation is a worry, give your child a security item to hold onto. This could be a toy that reminds them of home, a friendship bracelet, or a temporary tattoo applied by mom or dad on the morning of.

Let them share their camp experience.

Take time each night at dinner or before dinner to talk about their camp experience. Ask them how their day was, what activities they did, and any friends they made. You can also share your camp experience from when you were a child with them. Kids like to mirror their parents. When they report back to you at the end of the day, you can compare your camp experiences.

Take pictures.

Capture those special moments of them at camp so that they can look at them later. You can even take a picture of their first day at camp and show it to them that night to instill that excitement in them. They will love being able to look at those moments at camp when they are older and so will you.

Using these techniques will ease your child’s anxiety and with practice it will become easier for your child to separate from you. However, if your child continues to have difficulty separating from you, consulting an expert may be helpful.

Joanna A. Robin, Ph.D. Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders 212-246-5747