The Parents’ Guide to Managing Pre-Camp Anxiety
What to do when it's the grown-ups who have separation anxiety
My son is going to sleepaway camp for the first time this summer. He's thrilled. I'm a nervous wreck. I've been bouncing around the worry spectrum, from Vaguely Uneasy to Distinctly Nervous and, finally, Full-On Panicked.
What if he can't fall asleep? What if he gets lost in the woods? What if he gets bullied? What if there's a serial killer loose? What if he gets bitten by a tick? What if he misses me? What if he's miserable and I have no idea? What if he has so much fun he wants to go for even longer next summer?
These worries are grounded in reality (ok, serial killer aside), but they come from one place in me: How will I bear his absence? How will I tolerate how much I'll miss him? And I know I'm not alone.
"Today's parents worry about a lot," says Susie Lupert, executive director, American Camp Association, New York and New Jersey. "They are used to being tethered to their children and able to text them with every thought. Parents worry that their child can't function without them."
Kathryn Boyle Brewer, 49, of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is also sending her 9-year-old daughter off to sleepaway camp for the first time this summer. "We are trying to be supportive of her, but my husband and I are both really nervous," she says. Brewer, who used to work as a prosecutor on juvenile delinquent and adult criminal cases, is keenly aware of potential problems: "Once the veil of safety has been pierced, it's hard to look at things the same way. I go to worst case scenarios."
What exactly is she worried about? "I don't know the people that will be responsible for taking care of her, and a lot of them will be teenagers. It's outdoors, so there are all kinds of issues related to that," she explains. "It's boys and girls, and that, for me, is nerve-racking. And she hasn't ever been away from us that long."
One thing Brewer's not worried about is her daughter having a good time – she's pretty confident on that front. But for some parents, the social-emotional experience of kids at camp is a concern, especially for kids who have particular challenges in that area.
Jen Courant, mom to a 10-, 12- and 14-year-old in Brooklyn, New York, was nervous before each of her kids went to camp, but was especially anxious in the case of her 12-year-old. "Because of Frank's separation anxiety, I didn't even know if he was going to be able to be dropped off. I was worried he wouldn't be able to be apart from me," she recounts, "but it's funny how they can manage so much."
Kids do manage, of course, in ways that surprise us. And it's precisely that part of the sleepaway experience – developing independence – that's so thrilling and important. Kids manage, and their parents manage too. But that doesn't mean we can't use some help along the way. Try these strategies to cope with your anxiety, before and after your kids ship off to camp.
Before kids leave
Get information. Nothing aids and abets anxiety like the unknown. (It's where we can make up all kinds of fictitious worst-case scenarios.) Instead, research the info you need to replace those "what if?" questions with concrete answers. It helped Brewer to talk to lots of parents of former campers. "We tried to ask them as many questions as we could," she says. "The more info I have, the better off I am."
Lupert agrees the best cure for nervousness – for parents as well as for kids – is exposure and information. "Talk to the camp director, tour the camp, visit the camp's website, and watch the camp video," she suggests. "Many camps host new camper get-togethers before camp begins, which is a nice way for children to meet some familiar faces before the first day, and for parents to see what kind of environment their kids will be in."
Set kids up for success. Identify the specific things you're worried about, recommends Laura Markham, PhD, founder of Aha Parenting! and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. Then take reasonable measures to get your kids the support they need for smooth sailing. For example, if your child is a weak swimmer, set aside some pool time (or a few lessons) before camp starts.
If your child is shy, see if a friend from home can join the adventure, or ask the camp if they can put you in touch with someone who's coming from your neighborhood and get the kids together beforehand. Worried about your child getting homesick? Send your child a letter or care packages before he leaves, so it will be there when he arrives.
Reach out to camp directors with any specific concerns you have, suggests Carla Naumburg, PhD, author of Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family. If your child struggles with anxiety, ask the camp director who his point person will be if he's having a rough time, and share the things you know can be helpful for him in times of stress.
Even just being prepared with practical matters, like packing, can make a big difference. Lupert recommends parents pack with their kids: "Children will feel more comfortable knowing what they are bringing to camp, and you can use the time packing to talk about camp."
Project confidence (even if you have to fake it a little). Even the most courageous kid is likely to have some jitters before camp. If they feel like you're worried too, that will likely elevate their worry, which will, of course, increase your own, says Markham. Stop the contagion of anxiety by faking it 'til you make it. "Parents should share positive messages about camp with their child," says Lupert. "Let [your child] know you are confident that [she] will have a wonderful summer." If you say it enough, you'll start to believe it too.
Come up with a plan for saying goodbye. For your sake and your child's, short goodbyes are best. Markham suggests that you give your child a next step for just after you leave – help them figure out what they'll do, or who they can talk to – so they're not just staring at your car as it drives away. Plan some next steps for yourself too – something to do when you get home or someone to see.
But no matter how well you plan for it, Markham warns that the goodbye may be tough. "Be aware that the moment you leave you'll probably need to cry," says Markham. "It's fine to feel that way – it doesn't mean you shouldn't do it." She does caution parents to hold it together until they're out of sight of the camper, though. Then let those tears fly. You'll feel better afterward.
When your child is at camp
Find your sleepaway camp parent buddies. It's perfectly normal for you to be worried about your child undertaking this new experience, says Naumburg, and realizing that it's normal is actually the first step in managing your anxiety. And you know who else can help you with that? Other parents going through the same thing. So get together with parents of other campers: You can trade info and get plenty of empathy to feel better.
Stay busy. Camps make sure that your child will be running from one activity to the next, with little downtime. (Because camp counselors know that staying busy keeps homesickness at bay.) Naumburg encourages parents to follow suit and pack their schedules with fun and engaging plans.
Maybe that means trying a hobby you've been curious about (or returning to one you love), taking a special trip, finally taking that class you've been meaning to take, or just making fun plans with friends or your partner. "Parents should try and use this time to take a break from the cooking and soccer practices and enjoy some time out with friends or their spouse," recommends Lupert. After all, there are some big benefits to having some kid-free time. Enjoy them!
Get out of your head. Anxious feelings always pass, says Naumburg, and you can help them pass more quickly by noticing how you're feeling and opting out of the mental loop that escalates your worry. "Your anxious thought is not a reality," says Naumburg. "You can choose to follow that thought down the rabbit hole, or you can choose not to." One of the best ways to stay in the present and not follow your worries to their worst-case ending (again and again) is to get out of your head and into your body.
"Since the mind is usually on auto-pilot, anything that takes you into your body gives you a 'micro-vacation' from your mind, which allows you to become more fully present," says Markham. An easy way to ensure that is to integrate specific mindful rituals into the course of your normal day. "When you step in the shower, make it a practice to always stop and just feel the water on your body," suggests Markham. "Or use that first sip of coffee or tea in the morning – just savor that taste, and notice your experience."
Naumburg suggests taking a long slow breath in through your nose, hold it for just a second, then exhale slowly and fully through pursed lips. Repeat this two to three times, or however long it takes to you feel calm.
Remember why you're doing this. There are many sound, persuasive reasons why you sent your child to camp, but when anxiety is intense, those reasons can get buried under an avalanche of worry. "If you don't remind yourself why this is important, you can get lost in the anxiety," says Naumburg. "Maybe you value the independence your kids will develop, or you value the relationships they will build."
Brewer's been trying to do exactly that before her daughter leaves. "My daughter's getting [older], and she has to stand on her own two feet and make decisions, and those are all healthy things," says Brewer. "Growing up, in part, is overcoming your fears, and sometimes your parents have to overcome their fears right along with you."