Children at Summer Camp: Researchers Delve into Parent Anxiety and What to Do about It

July 22, 2019

When Bridget Trogden and her husband sent their son, Jacob, to camp last month, she was understandably nervous about sending her 12-year old to an overnight program. The week-long residential Adventure Camp, hosted by the Clemson University Youth Learning Institute (YLI), focused on outdoor activities and offered participants opportunities to build life skills including independence, social competence and resilience. Trogden, associate dean for engagement & general education in the Division of Undergraduate Studies, isn’t any different from other parents who may experience anxiety when they are separated from their children in an out-of-school time setting.

“I know that camp is an important childhood rite of passage,” she said. “But handing my only child over to a group of strangers for a week just feels unnatural to me.”

Although much research exists surrounding the separation of parents and their young adult children (i.e. when their kids leave home for college), that research falls surprisingly short for adolescents, according to College of Behavioral, Social, and Health Sciences faculty Barry Garst and Ryan Gagnon. So Garst, an associate professor of Youth Development Leadership, and Gagnon, an assistant professor of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management, set forth to fill that research need.

“There is a research gap concerning the causes and possible solutions for addressing parental anxiety when children attend summer camp,” said Garst. “There is research on overparenting in higher education settings, but the research is very limited for early adolescents in middle- and high school who participate in out-of-school time programs. So Ryan and I developed this research agenda.”

“Emerging adults are really easy to study in higher education settings,” added Gagnon. “For example, a psychology professor might have about 200 captive participants for study in their Psychology 101 or 201 course. So the preponderance of research in overparenting is with emerging adults, 18-24 year-olds. But when we look to adolescents, there is almost none.”

The pair found an excellent partner in YLI, which not only offers program to children in kindergarten through 12th grade, it also serves a number of other important functions – namely research.

“YLI helps fulfill Clemson’s goal of being a nationally recognized leader in innovative scholarship and creativity grounded in basic research and the land-grant mission,” said YLI Director Stephen Lance. “Our sites serve as living laboratories that meet the needs of the participants, while also serving as a training tool for others in the industry.”

Using YLI as a “learning lab,” Garst and Gagnon conducted research using data gained from parents who sent their children to YLI-hosted camps. Through questionnaires developed by the researchers and administered to parents by the YLI staff, combined with questionnaires in another study sent to camp directors across the country, a number of compelling themes emerged.

Here are three.

Why Are Parents Anxious?

Parents themselves often have no camp experience. Research conducted by Garst and Gagnon in 2016 indicated that 40% of respondents surveyed did not attend camp as a child. Will their children get dirty? Will they be isolated? Are there wild animals that might threaten camper safety? “Experiences such as overnight camp are novel to many parents and therefore parents may be uncertain about what their child will experience at camp,” the researchers noted.

Parental styles can contribute to anxiety. Garst and Gagnon define “helicopter parents” as those “who excessively shield and problem-solve for their children rather than allow them to experience failure or challenge.” The researchers suggested that parents who “overparent” will be more likely to become anxious when their child attends camp.

Parents are afraid their children will get hurt. In fact, children are less likely to get injured while attending a residential camp, when compared to many common high school sports. As Garst and his colleagues reported in 2013, the American Camp Association’s five-year study of camp-related injury and illness concluded that kids are less likely to get injured in residential camps where they attend 24/7, than they would in primary youth sports like football or baseball or soccer, where they participate for just a few hours. “So the real issue is that parents are concerned their child is going to hurt themselves or break a bone,” explained Garst. “They don’t think their child is going to get a cold or a gastrointestinal infection. That’s actually more likely.”

What Can Camps Do to Help Parents?

Garst and Gagnon have advice for camp providers to help ease the fears of anxious parents.

Provide parents and kids with pre-camp opportunities to visit the camp, meet the staff and become familiar with the facilities. The researchers said this can be done in a variety of ways. Some camps offer an open house, and some even offer an overnight experience so that campers and their parents can familiarize themselves with the camp facilities, staff and procedures. For parents who are unable to travel to the facilities, many camps offer “virtual tours.”

Provide parents with information about camp administrators, staff and safety procedures. Parents will appreciate background information about camp personnel. Answering questions concerning training and supervision increase parental trust in administrators and staff.

Set expectations about communication. In this day and age of instant communications, parents may expect an instant response to a call or a text. Camps may limit the use of cell phones. Campers may be on full activity schedules. And what 12-year-old calls his/her parents regularly? “Make the information and expectations more transparent to better meet parents’ modern-day expectations,” said Garst.

What Can Parents Do?

Garst and Gagnon also have advice for parents who are anxious about sending their children to a residential camp setting.

Remember that children are resilient and are capable of coping with change and being away from home, probably more so than their parents.

Do research on camps and communicate. Garst and Gagnon said that most camps are well prepared to help parents and children separate. Many camps employ or have a volunteer parent liaison, ambassador or coordinator to directly support parents’ needs and concerns. In addition, most camps employ highly qualified and well-trained staff. Parents should ask specific questions about how camp staff are trained and prepared for their roles. If camps offer a pre-visit or a virtual tour, parents should avail themselves of those options.

When selecting a camp, Garst and Gagnon recommend that parents start with camps accredited by the (ACA), the organization that provides the health, safety, and risk management standards for the camp industry.  Camps that are accredited by ACA are required to provide evidence that they meet these rigorous standards.

Make sure children are well before they go to camp. Garst explained that 20% of illness in camps is brought in on the first day of camp. An illness can impact a camper’s experience and potentially pose an issue for other campers. Parents should partner with camps to improve the overall health of the camp community, for example, informing camp administrators of recent illnesses or fever and providing the camp with full and complete information about a child’s health history and current/recent medications.

Partnering for Research

Garst and Gagnon said their partnership with the YLI continues to bode well for their research and has stimulated additional research with other out-of-school time research partners.

“YLI has opened doors for our access to other camps, said Gagnon. “Our relationship with the YLI has given us ‘street cred’ with other camps. If we didn’t have the successful partnership with YLI, those doors wouldn’t have opened for us.”

The pair’s research also helped YLI.

“When we started with YLI, we asked them about outcomes,” said Gagnon. “YLI has narrowed its focus on outcomes and as a result, YLI’s goals for campers better reflect its mission and vision.”

“Our long-term research partnership with Dr. Garst and Dr. Gagnon has enabled YLI to make evidence-based decisions to improve our capacity building programs.” said Lance, “Other universities now look to YLI for a model of public service outreach that puts research at the forefront.”

Originally published on newsstand.clemson.edu. Republished with permission.

Photo courtesy of Camp Kippewa in Monmouth, ME

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