For campers of any age, attending an overnight camp for the first time can be cause for a case of homesickness — a normal and reasonable reaction to separation from home and coping with unfamiliar surroundings. From my observations, it is best understood as a temporary state of anxiety caused by missing family, pets, and rituals that bring comfort and stability to a child’s life. A second component to homesickness, however, is equally important. This is the strange newness of residential camp life that can cause anxiety in a camper who perceives they do not fit in. They may not like or understand camp life, with its traditions, group activities, cliques of returning campers, and zaniness. Or they may feel alienated by new kinds of food, use of a group bathroom, or the darkness. The overriding concern is apt to be “Will I make friends?”
As you know (and may have experienced yourself as a camper), some campers are sad and/or anxious during the first few days of a camp session. They can display these feelings outwardly with words and tears, or inwardly by staying outside of the circle of activity and remaining quiet. Before discussing ways to ensure that campers are able to complete the camp session, I should clarify that I’m cautious about giving advice or listing a set of inflexible steps to help end homesickness. Each camper brings to camp a unique nature and history, and each of you, as camp counselors, have your own special way of interacting with youth who have not settled easily into life at camp. Please view the suggestions here as a complement to your own intuitive style. Experience leads me to believe that there are some highly effective ways of steering a homesick camper toward a pathway into the camp community. These thoughts are not linear steps that need be followed in any particular order. Rather, I offer a few thoughtful touchstones that you can consider when interacting with a homesick camper.
Do Your Research
Once you have ascertained that a camper has persistent homesickness, do your best to find out from the camp director, program director, and/or fellow staff members as much as you can about the camper. Try to learn about their hometown, family, favorite game, sport, etc. These will be helpful starting points for a one-on-one conversation. Of course, you will also get crucial information from the camper by asking questions about home, siblings, pets, and interests in sports, music, reading, or movies; and perhaps probe to see if a divorce, or death in the family, or another situation at home, may be the underlying cause of the sadness or anger.
Walk and Talk
Try taking a walk with the camper away from the rest of the campers in a location that is at the same time private and in view of others. You are about to have a supportive and caring interaction, so the location is very important. Consider not using the camp office, health center, or a cabin. I have found that walking around camp is the best option for putting a camper at ease, and the physical act of walking reduces the stress the camper is facing. Do maintain a good line of sight to other campers and staff so the camper feels safe being part of a one-on-one conversation.
When you give a camper options, it allows them to feel in control of the situation. This is very helpful because most homesick campers feel as if they have limited options. Here are a few sample questions you could ask (I am sure you can come up with your own as well):
- “Do you want to walk around the field, or do you prefer to sit under this tree?”
- “Do you need to cry some more, or are you ready to talk a little?”
- “Do you want to have a snack from the kitchen, or shall we get a stuffed animal from your cabin?”
Try an “Up and Out”
Hear the camper and be understanding of how they feel. It is good to get to a place where the camper can stop crying or being angry, and begin to let go of some of their emotional distress and/or sadness. Sometimes it works to sit next to the camper and ask them to breathe slowly and evenly with you. Let the camper cry, offer them a tissue, and let them cry some more. Keep using the deep breathing to help the camper slowly calm down. Sometimes, if the timing is right, an “up and out” will work with a camper. This is a silly or imaginative question or task, a positive or humorous distraction that can take a camper from a bad place to a clearer state of mind. An “up and out” can be a question (or directive) like:
- “If you had five cats, what would you name them?”
- “What item would you never put in a freezer?”
- “Try and spell your name backwards.”
Overcome the Mantras
Two phrases often dominate the homesick camper’s mind: “I want to go home,” and, in some cases, “My parents said they would pick me up if I didn’t like camp.” I call these “mantras” because the camper has convinced themselves that going home is the only option. It is your role to change this thinking and, with persistent, multiple strategies, to set a new course for a different outcome. Try saying something like this: “Before you think about going home, you’ll need to spend some more time getting to know your cabinmates, and you have to take part in some of the terrific camp programs.” Or, “For any camper to leave camp, we need to first get permission from the camp director, and we also need to talk with your parents.”
Because, in most cases, the camper has not experienced the joy of camp life and all the excitement yet to come, you will need to get the camper to agree to stay at camp and give it a try. Here’s one option: “Please give me and Camp Firewood a chance. We’ve talked about some of the things that you like about life at camp. How about taking the next 72 hours to try to enjoy camp and get involved with X activity and Y program?” Try not to make any promises you can’t keep, and do not offer a bribe to change behavior. You can offer incentives such as, “If you have a good day and participate in X program, I’ll tell a special story to your cabin tonight,” but don’t tell a camper they will get to go home if this or that happens.
Continue to Show Interest
Camper homesickness can be varied and unique, so you will need to delve deeper to understand a camper’s specific struggles at camp. Perhaps ask:
- “What are some of the things that trigger your sadness or homesickness?”
- “What time of day are you the most worried or sad?”
- “What memories of home and family make you feel sad or alone?”
It is important that you learn what is special and good about this camper. Ask questions and listen with a minimal amount of feedback or comments. For example:
- “What did you like about the day camp you went to last summer?”
- “Why do you think your parents wanted you come to camp?”
- “What are you worried about or scared of?”
These kinds of questions can sometimes bring back sadness and tears, and that’s OK. Crying is an important part of letting go and healing. So take the time to just sit with and support the camper, and let them cry. Sometimes it is a comfort to just be still and quiet until the camper has had a chance to gather their thoughts.
Tell a Story
When the time is right, tell a positive story about a young person who was able to move from sadness to contentment. Your story can show a camper who is struggling that homesickness can be a good thing. I use narratives like this: “A few summers ago, I sat at this very picnic table with a camper named Jason, who desperately wanted to go home. When we were walking back to the playing field after talking, I asked him to say three nice things to three people at camp. First, to my surprise, he said three nice things about me; then we saw his counselor, Dave, whom he also paid three compliments. Then I said, ‘You’re on your own! Go find a camper and say something nice.’ I don’t know if he said three nice things to another camper, but a few minutes later, I did see him playing tetherball.”
Weave into the story the idea that it takes strength to get over homesickness (Thompson, 2012): “This is a terrific step for you because you’re learning ways to make what feels like a bad situation better.” You can also ask the camper to talk about what they have done to get over a hardship or crisis at school or at home. If they have trouble answering, offer another story about overcoming a hardship. Storytelling is effective because it provides a powerful example of the courage it takes to create one’s own pathway to well-being at camp — or in life!
Encourage More Participation
Close your one-on-one time with the camper by making a plan for them to transition into camp life. Help the camper come up with three or more actions they will take during the next few days to extend themselves into camp life. Then have them complete one of the steps right away. If the camper remains reluctant, try having them tell the cook that the pancakes at breakfast were great, or ask them to volunteer for a chore. When a camper is able to give praise and/or help others, it is very hard for them to stay sad or feel lonely.
To ensure success during the camper’s adjustment, share the camper’s issues and the plan for getting them more involved with your fellow counselors, activity leaders, and camp leadership so they can keep an eye on the camper too. Consider asking one or two of the more mature campers to help draw the homesick camper into camp life. This may require you to facilitate. Ask them to invite the camper to sit with them during lunch or to see if the camper would like to learn how to make a friendship bracelet, etc. However, you should not encourage the other campers to counsel or advise the homesick camper.
Follow-up is reassuring. Make sure you discreetly check in with the camper at likely homesick times. These trigger times are apt to be rest hour, times between programs, after dinner, and bedtime. Keep camp leaders and the camp nurse up to date on any progress or emotional setbacks. If you have a day off coming up, ask at least one other staff person to take over your supportive and loving role.
Be aware that from the time you first reach out to a homesick camper, you are taking responsibility for compassionately guiding that camper from distraught to embracing camp life. You will find that the vast majority of homesick campers will respond positively when you learn about them individually, choose an appropriate setting to talk, give options, change the focus, ask questions, tell stories, and stay connected. The caring and careful guidance you offer to homesick campers this summer can help to ensure that they have a rewarding and life-changing experience in this and future summers.
Thompson, M. (2012). Homesick and happy: How time away from parents can help a child grow. New York, NY: Random House.
Nathaniel “Nat” Shed is a retired camp director with 25 years of camp leadership experience. He is a consultant to camps and nonprofit organizations. Reach Nat at email@example.com.