After the last marshmallow has roasted, the last sunset has sunk, and the last tear has dried, the aftermath of a summer at camp often reveals itself in, well, less than expected ways. Sure, there’s the “afterglow” of positive memories: friends, achievements, and awards. But there may be something else — a pervasive sense of loss that may surprise even the most empathic campers and mystify their unsuspecting parents, who don’t always understand the degree of difficulty in transitioning back to life at home. No more sand in the sheets, spiders in the sink, or showers to share . . . what could be so bad?
No more sand in the sheets, spiders in the sink, or showers to share. And no more round-the-clock roommates to make it all such fun!
Preparing Counselors for Summer
Most camp professionals spend a considerable amount of time preparing themselves and their counselors to help homesick kids. This makes sense because campers who struggle with the adjustment to camp present some of the more challenging aspects of our jobs and the work of our staffs. As we know, homesickness is, in essence, a response to separation from home and family. As such, it is viewed as a naturally occurring reaction to temporary “loss.” While older children typically handle separation better than younger ones, kids of all ages — and of both sexes — may suffer from anxiety related to this transition.
Helping these children experience success in our environment is where we focus a significant amount of our time and energy.
Preparing Parents and Campers for Summer
With the assistance of experts such as Dr. Chris Thurber, the camp industry has made great advances in helping to prepare families ahead of time — so that prevention of homesickness becomes the goal moreso than the treatment.
So, what’s next? Preparing parents and campers for after the summer!
Preparing Parents and Campers for After the Summer
While there are various strategies for helping campers who are homesick (see www.CampParents.org/homesickness  for more information), it’s important to help camp families explore strategies for helping campsick kids who truly miss their summer home (or “home away from home” as many of the kids refer to camp). As is the case with separation from the comforting, nurturing routines of home — not to mention the support and affection of family members — exiting the camp community can elicit many of the same feelings of sadness and loss. Paradoxically, these emotions may be most intense among older kids, suddenly cognitively capable of abstract thinking — delving deeper into their emotional world — and more focused on peer relationships than their younger campmates. And these strong feelings may emerge regardless of the length of the campers’ stay.
In 1969, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler- Ross wrote of what she referred to as five common steps of dealing with loss. The stages she identified are:
- Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
- Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
- Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will .”
- Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
- Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.”
Dr. Kubler-Ross did not intend to suggest that each of these stages are experienced by every adult or child dealing with loss, or even that they occur chronologically, but rather that these are reactions one should be familiar with so that he or she understands their emotional reactions to separation — say, leaving the close confines of summer camp — are normal, predictable, and helpful in “healing.” While Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief and loss have been widely debated, even criticized, they do resonate as intuitive responses to difficult partings, regardless of age or specific circumstances.
What the Kids Say
What better way to understand the ways in which young people experience the end of camp — and the strategies they employ to feel better — than by listening to what they have to say?
Charlie, sixteen, states: “Missing camp is one thing that really makes my life difficult. Being restrained from the thing I love most is nearly impossible to bear for almost a year. There are little things you can do to try to diminish these feelings, like talking to or hanging out with your camp friends, or even looking at Facebook pictures, but camp sickness truly is an ailment that only has one cure: camp.”
Fourteen-year-old Del i lah says : “Leaving camp is one of the hardest things about going to camp. Those last moments when you have to say goodbye to your ‘brothers and sisters’ is a very difficult thing. It makes you realize just how special camp is to you and just how close you are to the friends that you’ve made.”
Jeremy, fifteen, adds: “When camp ends, all of the friendships that were made at camp remain, especially thanks to modern communication, but it is very hard for campers to make a transition between always being with their friends and living at home again.”
Jenna, also fifteen, finds it important to give it time and take it slow: “Don’t pretend that camp never happened. If you immediately jump right back into your routine at home as if you’ve never left, it becomes a bit tiring. I find it important to catch up on sleep and tell stories about camp to your family. If you do things like that instead of jumping straight into preparing for school, it helps you feel as if the summer didn’t rush past you quite as fast.”
Jeremy compared notes with his camp friends and discovered their strategies differed: “Upon discussing this with my cabin mates near the end of this summer, it was clear that everyone had their own methods, some of which included: playing videogames, staying in contact to a large extent for a few days, hanging out a lot with non-camp friends, going to other camps, or just having to go straight to school.”
Joe, fourteen, ref lects, “Camp friends are a special breed of friends. One of the main reasons is that you only get see them once a year. The product of this short period of time is an awesome party filled with many memorable events. But the worst part about camp friends is that at the end of the summer you have to say goodbye, which is the worst feeling ever.”
Best Friends for Life
The most prominent theme embedded in descriptions of campsickness is that of the friendships formed at summer camp and how they differ from those formed elsewhere. Kids themselves express amazement that the peers they spend just two, four, or seven weeks with far outpace in meaningfulness those with whom they share the ten- or eleven-month “off-season.”
What’s the Difference?
Delilah says: “After being at camp for seven years I can truly say that the friends I’ve made at camp are like my family. The bond between my friends and me is something that can never be broken. If you’re having a bad day, a camp friend is always there to cheer you up and make you smile. Your camp friends are not the type of people who judge you and make you feel like you don’t belong, which is a nice break from certain people who you might encounter while you are at home. Also, not only are you friends with people of your own age, but you become friends with younger and older kids. That feeling of always having someone by your side is a feeling that all kids should get to experience and I don’t know a better place to do that than at camp.”
According to Jeremy: “Camp friendships are different from any other friendships one may have because you live so closely with camp friends. Over time, you get to know a lot more about camp friends than any other friends you may have.”
What Parents Can Do (and Not Do)
As with most communications with kids, there are both helpful and unhelpful approaches parents can take with their campsick offspring. As I point out in my book, Reality Gap, every family has a unique pattern of communication. Some families tend toward the expressive: openly and eagerly sharing ideas and inviting debate about issues big and small. Other families seem to mostly communicate in code, with certain gestures or facial expressions carrying the burden of interaction. Still others have established certain traditions, like dinner-time games that elicit dialogue, such as High/Low (“What was the high point of your day and the low point of your day?”). No matter a family’s personal style, most of them have room for improvement in communicating openly with young people about emotional issues, even recovering from the sadness that often marks the end of the camp and summer season.
As you might guess, there are many elements that play into parent-child interaction, including the personalities of each (such as outgoing vs. shy, aggressive vs. passive) and past communication practices (such as open vs. secretive, formal vs. informal). These factors necessarily affect the tone, pace, and productiveness of dialogue. And while there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to successfully talking with kids about missing camp, these young people have some pretty good advice to offer their parents.
“Something to remember for parents is to allow your child to reconnect with friends, both from home and camp,” says Jenna. “I know that its hard for a parent to go without seeing their child for a long time, but when a kid gets home from camp all that they are thinking of is how much they already miss their friends. If you get to see your schoolmates, it’s a nice reminder that you have just as many good friends at home, too. I know one thing that my parents ask of me every year when I get home is to please step away from my cell phone for a little while. However, texting my friends that I’ve just left is a nice reminder that I’m not saying goodbye forever and that I’ll still be able to keep in touch with them.”
And Delilah offers: “My parents can also be a great help when I am campsick. They reassure me that I will be back there next summer and that I shouldn’t cry because it’s over, but smile because it happened.”
What the Parents Say
Parents obviously experience their child’s sense of post-camp loss differently. Some understand, and some don’t. But regardless, their reactions and support can make a big difference in the shelf-life of campsickness.
Laurie, mother to Lily, sixteen, says: “I believe that kids today experience so much stress during the year that it is almost unbearable. Camp is a magical bubble of time when they can be anyone they wish to be and just ‘hang out’ with their friends and decompress. At camp, Lily can have messy hair and be wearing a dirty t-shirt and her friends will still love her, laugh at her jokes, and accept her for who she is inside. Camp friendships, as a result of living so closely together for so long, are the ones Lily considers to be real and lasting. When she comes home, one of the most helpful things I do is take long walks with her and encourage her to tell me all the camp stories. By sharing them, Lily can bridge that gap just a bit and bring her stories to life once again. I also make sure her older siblings are with us the week she returns, since extra activity helps distract her from the emptiness she feels after being so actively involved with so many friends for such a long period of time.”
Susan, the mom of seventeen-yearold Christopher, says: “Over the years of welcoming our returning camper, we’ve realized that parents may be looking ahead to what’s next sooner than the camper is. So patience on the parent’s part is needed. Allowing some decompression time where possible and asking some leading questions helps bring some happy closure and readiness to transition to back-to-school-mode. We like open-ended questions, such as: ‘So, what was your favorite event?’ ‘What was your hardest challenge?’ ‘Who do you plan to keep in touch with?’ and ‘Tell us about a new counselor or camper.’”
Louis, dad of two teenage girls, states: “Having experienced camp withdrawal myself, it still is most difficult as a parent. Their experiences, and the transition back home, are very different but share a common thread: They are proud of their accomplishments and feel a sense of confidence and independence. The key for me has been to embrace this and not fight it, even though their view of independence might not be universally accepted in our home and may need to be modified. After all, isn’t that new sense of confidence what I wanted for them as I packed them off in June? Too often we as parents don’t fully appreciate that our child needs to grow and needs to feel that we appreciate the growth and embrace it rather than feel the need to correct it. Most of all, we open our family conversations to the many opinions and recanting of the summer events and experiences without judging the energetic and excited tone of the stories. The minor frustrations I might have upon their reentry to the ‘home world’ are outweighed by the pride and love I have for them and their growth. It reminds me that sometimes the best lessons — those focused on compassion, support, and love — can often be communicated more effectively by nonverbal gestures and actions than by words.”
And Silvia, the mom of two teenage boys weighs in: “One of the best things about camp is that it gives our children an opportunity to have a life that we as parents know very little about. Camp really allows our children to live in an environment that is all their own, with activities and friends that parents know nothing about. This ‘private life’ is great while it lasts, but when our children come home with campsickness, it makes it even harder to try to help, as we don’t really know exactly what and who they may be missing. Asking too many questions is, of course, the wrong thing to do. Although I am not a huge fan of social media, we allowed our eighth grade son to go on Facebook, and this helped him keep in touch with those people he is missing.”
As young people and their families begin the elongated process of unpacking summer, it’s important that they have a social-psychological framework in which to consider the suddenly strong emotions that come with separation and loss, and work collaboratively toward a successful adjustment and start of the school year.
After all is said and done, the afterglow will provide much of the healing needed to survive until the next summer arrives and we revisit William Shakespeare’s admonition that “summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”
What’s a Camp Director to Do?
Camp professionals can play an influential, and enormously helpful, role in preparing parents for the return of their offspring — arming them with strategies and tools to ease the transition and prepare for the school year ahead. Just as with homesickness, campsickness requires our input and direction. Here are some ways you can help:
American Camp Association. Kids & families. Retrieved from www.CampParents.org/ 
American Camp Association. Homesickness — Expert advice for parents. Retrieved from www.CampParents.org/homesickness 
American Camp Association. How to choose a camp — Homesickness. Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/media-center/how-to-choose/  homesickness
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation. (2011). Five stages of grief. Retrieved from www .ekrfoundation.org/five-stages-of-grief
O’Rourke, M. (Feb. 1, 2010). Good grief. The New Yorker. Retrieved from www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2010/02/01/100201crat_atlarge_orourke 
Thurber, C. (2008). Prevent homesickness now! Retrieved from www.campspirit.com/parents/prevent-homesickness-now.html 
Wallace, S. (2011). An introduction to camp counseling. Boston: Summit.
Wallace, S. (2008). Reality gap. New York: Union Square Press/Sterling Publishing.
Stephen Wallace, MSEd, author of the book Reality Gap: Alcohol, Drugs, and Sex — What Parents Don’t Know and Teens Aren’t Telling, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He serves as director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps, senior advisor for policy, research, and education at SADD, and associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education at Susquehanna University. For more information about Stephen’s work, visit www.stephengraywallace.com .
© Summit Communications Management Corporation 2011 All Rights Reserved
Originally published in the 2012 January/February Camping Magazine.