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A Closer Look at Parents’ Worries and Children’s Anxiety as Risk Factors for Homesickness: Practical Strategies for Camp Staff and Families
Have you ever received multiple phone calls from a parent who is seeking reassurance that his or her child’s camp experience will go smoothly? Have you noticed parents or children who look worried when arriving for camp? Or, have you overheard parents talking with their children about the things that could go wrong during camp? As a camp staff member, you have most likely observed these behaviors, which can be risk factors for homesickness. Although many children experience mild homesickness, a relatively small number of campers (i.e., 10–20 percent) report severe homesickness that can prevent them from participating fully in camp activities (Thurber, 1995; Thurber, Sigman, Weisz, & Schmidt, 1999). Higher levels of homesickness are related to younger child age, less camp experience, lower perceived ability to manage homesickness, less involvement in the decision to attend camp, and fewer adaptive coping strategies, such as writing a letter to parents (Thurber, 1999; Thurber et al., 1999; Thurber & Weisz, 1997). Additional research on homesickness is needed to identify other factors that camp staff could include in interventions aimed at reducing homesickness during camp.
One topic that has received limited research attention is parenting attitudes or behaviors that may be related to homesickness. In one of the few studies to examine parenting variables, Thurber and Sigman (1998) found that boys who experienced more homesickness had parents who reported greater separation anxiety about sending their children to camp. Although not conducted in camp settings, research evaluating risk factors for childhood anxiety highlights the role of parents’ anxiety in predicting children’s anxiety symptoms and other emotional difficulties (e.g., Burstein, Ginsburg, & Tein, 2010; Capps, Sigman, Sena, Henker, & Whalen, 1996; Micco et al., 2009). Specifically, Capps and colleagues (1996) found that, in comparison to a control group of children whose mothers did not have an anxiety disorder, children of mothers with agoraphobia reported more symptoms of anxiety and lower levels of control over negative events. These children were also more likely to meet criteria for an anxiety disorder, and their mothers reported high levels of anxiety about being separated from their children.
As Fisak and Grills-Taquechel (2007) explained, children may observe and mimic parents’ physical symptoms of anxiety (e.g., shaking), discussions about worries, or avoidance of feared situations. Furthermore, when parents frequently provide verbal warnings (e.g., “be careful”), children may anticipate danger and fear certain situations. In particular, clinically anxious mothers are more likely to exhibit parenting behavior that is overly controlling and critical, which is related to lower levels of perceived control (e.g., ability to cope with challenging situations and worries) and higher anxiety among children (Becker, Ginsburg, Domingues, & Tein, 2010; Festa & Ginsburg, 2011). Similar to anxiety, children’s feelings of homesickness could be influenced by parents’ anxious behaviors or verbal messages. In The Summer Camp Handbook, Thurber and Malinowski (2000) mentioned that youth whose parents express worries about camp can feel uneasy about the camp experience, which may lead to homesickness. Given that only one study has evaluated the association between children’s homesickness and parents’ anxiety about being away from their children (Thurber & Sigman, 1998), further research is needed.
The relationship between children’s precamp anxiety symptoms and homesickness also has been rarely considered. In previous studies, children’s anxiety has been included within the broad areas of negative emotion or internalizing distress (e.g., combination of sadness, loneliness, and worry; Thurber, 1995; Thurber et al., 1999). However, few camp researchers have examined children’s anxiety symptoms separately. In one exception, Thurber (1999) assessed children’s anxiety near the end of camp, and found a significant relationship between homesickness and anxiety symptoms. Additional research is needed to understand whether higher anxiety symptoms prior to camp place children at greater risk for homesickness. Children experiencing symptoms of separation anxiety (e.g., worry that attachment figures will be harmed) and social anxiety (e.g., excessive shyness, fear of embarrassment) often have difficulty attending school and participating in activities with peers, such as sleepovers or birthday parties (Albano, Chorpita, & Barlow, 2003). Based on their anxiety symptoms and social difficulties, we would expect these children to have trouble adjusting to camp and be at a greater risk for experiencing homesickness.
The main goal of this study was to explore how parents’ worries about sending their children to camp and children’s precamp social and separation anxiety symptoms related to homesickness during overnight summer camp. Using a sample of both boys and girls, we examined these parent and child anxiety variables in combination with factors considered in previous studies (i.e., children’s age, prior camp experience, control over the decision to attend camp). Based on previous research, we expected that higher levels of both parent and child anxiety would be associated with more homesickness during camp. We also examined whether girls and boys differed in the amount of homesickness that they experienced, and whether high parent anxiety was more detrimental for the homesickness levels of boys versus girls.
Two hundred seventy-five participants (93 percent Caucasian; 131 boys) were recruited across six weeklong sessions during the summer of 2009 at a coed overnight camp in the state of New York. Participants ranged in age from seven to fourteen years (M = 10.83). Families were invited to participate in this study during the Sunday evening check-in at the beginning of each weeklong camp session. After agreeing to participate, each camper and one of his or her parents/guardians completed questionnaires, with researchers providing assistance as needed.
At the Sunday evening check-in, a parent or guardian provided demographic information for each child (i.e., birth date, gender, race/ethnicity, number of times previously attending overnight camp). Parents also responded to four items that were created based on research describing parents’ worries about sending children to camp (Thurber & Malinowski, 2000; Thurber & Walton, 2007). Sample items included: “I am worried about being away from my child this week” and “I have warned my child about things that could go wrong during his or her week at camp.” Each item was rated on a fourpoint scale from one (strongly disagree) to four (strongly agree). In addition, parents answered an adapted decision control item from the Ways of Coping with Homesickness questionnaire (Thurber & Weisz, 1997): “My child was involved in our decision to send him/her to overnight camp this year” on a four-point scale from one (strongly disagree) to four (strongly agree). Also at the Sunday evening check-in, campers answered five social and separation anxiety items from the Child Report version of the Screen for Child Anxiety and Related Emotional Disorders (Birmaher et al., 1997) on a four-point scale from one (strongly disagree) to four (strongly agree). Example items include: “I feel nervous around people I don’t know well” and “I don’t like to be away from my family.”
On Thursday evening of the camp week, children completed homesickness questions in the dining hall. Campers rated three homesickness items on a four-point scale from one (strongly disagree) to four (strongly agree): “I felt homesick this week,” “I missed my family this week,” and “I missed home this week.” These items were adapted from the Rate Your Day-Revised checklist (Thurber & Sigman, 1998). Notably, each weeklong camp session ended on Friday evening.
Associations Between Parent/Child Anxiety and Homesickness
Greater parental anxiety about sending children to camp was associated with higher levels of homesickness. Children’s symptoms of separation and social anxiety at the beginning of camp were also correlated with more homesickness. Younger age, fewer previous years attending camp, and less involvement in the decision to attend were also associated with homesickness. Higher parent anxiety was related to a greater number of child separation anxiety symptoms. In addition, child separation and social anxiety were negatively correlated with children’s age and number of previous years attending camp. Higher separation anxiety was also related to less involvement in the decision to attend camp (see Table 1).
Examining Possible Gender Differences
A 2 X 2 Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) was used to examine whether girls and boys differed in their mean level of homesickness and to explore whether high parent anxiety was more detrimental for the homesickness levels of boys versus girls. The independent variables were gender (i.e., boy, girl) and parent anxiety group (i.e., low, high). The dependent variable was children’s mean homesickness score. For the high parent anxiety group, parents’ anxiety scores fell in the top 30 percent of the sample (M > 2.33 out of 5; n = 82). For the low parent anxiety group, parents’ scores were in the bottom 30 percent (M < 1.5; n = 95). The cutoff scores for these two groups were approximately one standard deviation above and below the mean for the parent anxiety measure.
Results revealed a significant effect for parent anxiety group (see Figure 1). Children in the high parent anxiety group reported significantly more homesickness (M = 2.53) than children in the low parent anxiety group (M = 1.76; F [1, 173] = 34.21, p < .001). Although girls reported slightly higher levels of homesickness (M = 2.23) than boys (M = 2.11), this difference was not statistically significant (F [1, 173] = 1.51, p > .05). The interaction effect (i.e., gender by parent anxiety) was not significant (F [1, 173] = 2.24, p > .05). That is, high parent anxiety appeared to be associated with homesickness in a similar manner for both boys and girls. When these analyses were conducted using different criteria to create the parent anxiety groups (i.e., above and below the mean score), the pattern of results remained the same.
Overall, results of the present study revealed that higher levels of both parent and child anxiety were associated with more homesickness during camp. Furthermore, the relationship between parental anxiety and children’s homesickness was similar for boys and girls. Limitations of this study include recruiting participants from only one camp with short (i.e., weeklong) sessions, administering a relatively small number of questionnaire items, and assessing homesickness retrospectively near the end of the camp week, at a time when children’s homesick feelings may have been declining. As many of the participants attended this camp every year, there were only a small number of campers with severe levels of anxiety or homesickness.
Despite these limitations, findings suggest that camp directors and staff may be able to reduce homesickness by implementing practical strategies aimed at easing parents’ and children’s anxiety prior to camp. Consistent with previously established homesickness prevention programs (e.g., Thurber, 2005), parents should include children in planning for camp by allowing them to choose a specific camp program. They should also arrange for practice overnights away from home and involve children in making a packing list for camp. Registration packets sent by mail could include an educational brochure with tips for parents and campers to help them cope with precamp anxiety and homesickness. During open house events, camp directors could provide a session for parents that offers the following tips: remain positive about the upcoming camp experience, keep any doubts or worries to yourself, discuss strategies for coping with homesickness, and do not make any “early pick up deals” with your child (Thurber & Malinowski, 2000).
Additional strategies to augment current prevention programs include enclosing a screening questionnaire to assess parents’ and children’s anxiety levels in the registration packets that are sent home. Families with high scores could receive a phone call from camp staff, emphasizing the importance of practice time away from home, visiting camp in advance to meet staff and learn more about the summer camp experience, and attending camp with a sibling or familiar peer. Staff training programs could include tips for helping anxious campers adjust to the camp experience (see Rapee, Spence, Cobham, & Wignall, 2000). Overall, efforts aimed at easing parents’ and children’s anxiety could lessen homesickness, al lowing youth to benefit more fully from the camp experience.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the camp directors and families at Camp Talooli in upstate New York, as well as the invaluable assistance provided by Nicholas Georgitseas, Sarah Lubeck, and Kyle Whitaker.
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Becker, K. D., Ginsburg, G. S., Domingues, J., & Tein, J. (2010). Maternal control behavior and locus of control: Examining mechanisms in the relation between maternal anxiety disorders and anxiety symptomatology in children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38, 533–543.
Birmaher, B., Khetarpal, S., Brent, D., Cully, M., Balach, L., Kaufman, J., & Neer, S. M. (1997). The Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders (SCARED): Scale construction and psychometric characteristics. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 36, 545–553.
Burstein, M., Ginsburg, G. S., & Tein, J. (2010). Parental anxiety and child symptomatology: An examination of additive and interactive effects of parent psychopathology. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38, 897–909.
Capps, L., Sigman, M., Sena, R., Henker, B., & Whalen, C. (1996). Fear, anxiety and perceived control in children of agoraphobic parents. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 37, 445–452.
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Julie Kingery is an assistant professor of developmental psychology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and a former counselor at Camp Lutherlyn in western Pennsylvania. Her research interests focus on childhood anxiety and the importance of friendship for children’s adjustment.
Kelly Peneston is the assistant camp director at Camp Talooli in Syracuse, New York, and also volunteers as an ACA visitor for the Upstate New York field office. She is currently pursuing a PhD in school psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Bernadette Wormuth graduated from William Smith College in 2012 with majors in psychology and English. She is pursuing a PhD in counseling and school psychology at the University at Buffalo.
Stacey Rice graduated from William Smith College in 2011 with majors in psychology and environmental studies. She is currently working at Keep America Beautiful in Stamford, Connecticut, a nonprofit organization focused on engaging individuals to take greater responsibility for their community environments.
Originally published in the 2012 July/August Camping Magazine.