Homesickness, while common for campers, can be prevented or minimized. Here are some tips to help children cope with this natural phase of development.
Summertime! What child doesn’t look forward to the sultry days of July and August, free from school and full of possibility?
Summer might mean a visit to the cottage, staying over at a friend’s house, or going to summer camp.
For children, summer is a wonderful time to develop a sense of independence, to embark on new adventures, and to pick up new skills.
At the same time, being away from home can produce an unwelcome dose of homesickness! Nausea, headache, mood swings, crying and irritability, lethargy, lack of motivation – these are just some of the symptoms associated with homesickness.
Researchers believe that homesickness is caused by a temporary absence from a happy, stable home. So if our children exhibit signs of homesickness, it means they feel loved, accepted and nurtured. Parents should understand that homesickness is a natural and expected phase of childhood development.
As parents, we want to do what we can to protect our children from feeling this way.
On the other hand, we want our children to experience new challenges in a positive and healthy way. We know it is our role as parents to foster independence and autonomy.
The good news is that in many instances, homesickness can either be prevented or minimized. And we can start acting now to help our children cope with summer camp, an overnight visit to a friend’s, or a trip away from home.
Here are a few simple preventive measures:
•Talk to your child about what it is going to be like being away from home. See if you can walk him through a typical day, focusing on the fun and interesting things he’ll be doing. Be enthusiastic and optimistic. For summer camp, talk to camp staff about obtaining a detailed schedule. Knowing what to expect helps a child feel a sense of security.
•Avoid negative comments such as, “I hope you’ll be OK” or “I’ll worry about you.” Children are astute and can easily pick up on your feelings of anxiety.
•Encourage your child to take something memorable from home: a special toy, a blanket, a stuffed animal. This item, you can explain, is a link to home.
•It is important to avoid saying that your child can come home. Children have a marvellous capacity to cope, if given the support and the chance to adapt to a new environment. Don’t forget, the ability to face new challenges is an important life skill all parents need to teach their children.
•Try a few practice sessions. For example, camping in the backyard with a sibling or staying overnight with a friend.
•If possible, visit the facility beforehand. A quick tour of a summer camp, for example, can make all the difference in helping a child feel more comfortable.
•Give your child pre-stamped, addressed envelopes and writing paper before she leaves. Encourage her to write home and don’t forget to take the time to write back. Make sure your letters are not overly saturated with how much fun you are having without your child or the reverse. Avoid statements like: “We miss you very much,” or “It is not the same without you.” These comments can inadvertently trigger homesickness.
•Remember, lengthy goodbyes can be difficult for children and their parents. Try to keep your departure upbeat, brief and cheerful.
Preventing homesickness is one thing. But what do we do if we have a child visiting us who clearly misses home? Here are several strategies for dealing with a homesick child:
•Engage the child in a task, preferably something fun and absorbing – take a trip to the zoo, make a craft, or take a hike.
•Let the child write a short note to his parents. Allow your visitor to express his feelings, but encourage him to focus on the positive things that are happening.
•Try not to call home. Hearing the voice of a parent tends to make homesickness worse.
•Encourage your visitor to make a friend. Often that one bond helps a child feel a sense of security and belonging.
•Never belittle or chastise a child for feeling homesick. Instead, emphasize that homesickness is a normal part of growing up. Support, acknowledge, and celebrate every positive step.
Keep in mind that while goodbyes may be difficult and homesickness real, the rich experiences kids encounter away from home help them become the strong, independent and fully functioning citizens we want them to be.
Jacob Rodenburg is the executive director of Camp Kawartha and the Kawartha Outdoor Education Centre: www.campkawartha.ca. He also teaches part-time at Trent University.