A kid’s first time at sleepaway camp is a major milestone that (hopefully) yields many happy memories. Adjusting to the relatively brief separation, however, can be a challenge for both parents and campers, which is why we tapped clinical psychologist Dr. Bethany Cook for some tips on how best to prepare kids for the sleepaway experience. Read on so you can send ‘em off smiling.
1. Talk about the upcoming separation
Sleeping away from home can be tough for stage five clingers and independent types alike, which is why the expert recommends that parents help “prime the neural pathways” of their child before the big event. One way to accomplish this is by simply speaking openly about the planned time apart. “Many parents believe ‘if I don’t say it out loud my child won’t stress about it,’ but this is a mistake,” says Cook. “Your child is thinking about it and wondering why you aren’t talking about it.” In other words, if you were thinking something along the lines of ‘we’ll cross that bridge when we get there’ or ‘let’s not make a big deal out of it,’ your avoidant attitude might have the unintended effect of making your kid more anxious about the new experience. Instead, check in with your kid periodically in the weeks prior to the start of camp so you have the opportunity to explore any concerns and find solutions together.
2. Do a practice run, if possible
Homesickness is a common feeling among kids, particularly first-timers, at sleepaway camp. However, Cook says you can mitigate this potential problem by familiarizing your child with, well, the unfamiliar. This is particularly important when it comes to sleep routines—namely because homesickness tends to hit the hardest when it comes time to fall asleep in a strange new place. As such, Cook suggests that parents “create as similar a sleep situation as possible prior to leaving.” This might mean having your child sleep in a sleeping bag or on a hard surface for a few days if that’s what the camp experience will be like; otherwise, it can even be helpful to blow up an air mattress in a different room of your home so your child can learn how to drift off in a new place.
3. Check out the camp together
Yet another way to prime the neural pathways, so to speak, is by allowing your kid the opportunity to see where they will be sleeping with their own two eyes. Most of the camp anxiety kids experience has to do with a very natural fear of the unknown. For this reason, a quick visit to the place where your child will be staying can go a long way towards allaying some of the fear and anticipation. Once you’re on site, look around, check out the sleep arrangements and encourage your kid to ask questions of the camp leaders if they want. The purpose of the visit is to “take away as much uncertainty as possible and allow your child to visually see where they will stay so they can mentally prepare.”
4. Have your child bring a transitional object
Kids who are old enough to go to sleepaway camp probably won’t be too keen on toting their childhood lovie around. That said, even too-cool-for-school tweens can benefit tremendously from the comfort of a transitional object. The solution? Find an object that represents home in a more discreet way than a stuffed animal. A few ideas that fit the bill include a pillowcase with the scent of a familiar laundry detergent, one of your T-shirts, or even just a handwritten note to read every night at bedtime.
5. Use a sheet spray or temple rub
According to Cook, “smells, memories and emotions are closely linked in our brain” and this fact can be used to everyone’s advantage when it comes to helping a child adapt to a period of separation. We hinted at this already with the laundered pillowcase idea, but if you plan ahead, essential oil (think: lavender or jasmine) can be spritzed on the bedding or dabbed on the temples to encourage a feeling of calm at bedtime—just be sure to introduce the fragrance as part of your kid’s nighttime ritual a few weeks before the start of camp in order to establish an association between the smell and calm, peaceful sleep.