What More Can We Do to Help Homesick Campers? Homesickness, Anxious Withdrawal, and Motivations to Avoid New Experiences

Matthew Barstead, MS
July 2015

When Rudy ran away in the Ivan Reitman movie Meatballs he helped enshrine homesickness as one of the hallmarks of the camp experience alongside morning announcements, pranks, talent shows, and inter-camp rivalries. Every counselor who has ever watched the 1970’s camp classic recognizes Rudy’s struggles. We all have our homesick camper stories, after all. If you have been in the camp business long enough, you have probably even dealt with some severe manifestations of homesickness, such as refusing to eat, attempting to run away, or even acting out violently in an effort to get sent home. Thankfully, these behavioral strategies are not the nomr, but they do grab our attention. Acute and mild forms of homesickness are much more common, as approximately 80 percent to 95 percent of boys and girls report feeling homesick at some point during their overnight camp experience (Thurber, 2005; Thurber & Sigman, 1998; Thurber, Sigman, Weisz, & Schmidt, 1999). 

Despite compelling research conducted by Christopher Thurber and his colleagues, it is sometimes all too easy to dismiss homesickness as an aberrant condition that will clear up on its own through the natural processes that integrate campers with the camp environment. Activites will keep them occupied, cabinmates will distract them, and soon their longing for home will be forgotten. Perhaps due to the strength of summer camp programming, counselors often need address homesickness with only the lightest of touches and let the camp experience unfold as designed. Still, some children cannot shake their fixation on home, and approximately 20 percent of campers report moderate to severe feelings of homesickness (Thurber & Sigman, 1998).

Homesickness and Attachment 

Homesickness and Attachment Homesickness is commonly thought to occur as the result of an actual or anticipated sepa-ration from home (Thurber & Walton, 2007). Thurber and his colleagues have suggested that the distress over being separated from home has a great deal to do with being apart from attachment figures like parents, which in turn can lead to anxiety, depression, and withdrawal (Thurber & Sigman, 1998; Thurber & Walton, 2007). However, not every study examining homesickness has found that the parent-child relationship plays an important role (Kerns, Brumariu, & Abraham, 2008). Still, the majority of research into homesickness at camp implies that a child’s attachment to his or her primary caregiver is related to homesickness.

At the broadest level, a secure attachment style forms when a primary caregiver effectively and consistently responds to the expressed needs of the child (Bowlby, 1982). If the primary caregiver inappropriately or inconsistently responds to the child’s needs, then the child is more likely to de-velop an insecure attachment style. Bowlby viewed the development of secure attachment as a critical condition for children to feel comfortable exploring their environments, learning from new experi-ences, and building healthy, stable relationships. Attachment is one of several developmental theories that has survived exhaustive study, and it has been consistently shown that securely attached children tend to have fewer social and emotional problems throughout their life course than insecurely at-tached children (Brumariu & Kerns, 2010; Schneider, Atkinson, & Tardif, 2001). Attachment likely became of interest to homesickness researchers because of the distress insecurely attached children experience when separated from their primary caregiver in an unfamiliar setting (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970).

The fact that camps are novel and distinct from the “real world” is typically a programmatic strength. The breakdown of normal routines and removal of familiar settings helps children come out of their shells and have one-of-a-kind experiences. However, for certain children this lack of familiarity can be distressing, and attachment theory is one explanation for why they may feel overwhelmed and fixate on familiar locations (home) and relationships (parents). Another consideration is the child’s predisposition to withdraw from novel experiences. Socially in-hibited and shy children may have a particularly tough time at camp where social integration with a cabin full of unfamiliar peers is a key to success. Homesickness may then manifest as a means to escape the anxiety-inducing present, replete with its new surroundings and cabinmates.

A Withdrawal Model of Moderate and Severe Homesickness

Social withdrawal is a relatively broad construct that describes self-imposed isolation in the presence of peers (Rubin & Coplan, 2010). Social withdrawal is distinct from active isolation in which peers reject, exclude, and victimize a target child or children. Sadly, social withdrawal tends to predict negative peer experiences like rejection over time, which in turn reinforces the withdrawn child's initial motivation to seek solitude (Rubin, Coplan, & Bowker, 2009). There are two very general motivations for social withdrawal. The first, preference for solitude, is relatively benign, though it begins to carry social and emotional costs as children enter adolescence (Wang, Rubin, Laursen, Booth-LaForce, & Rose-Krasnor, 2013). Children who prefer solitude enjoy their “me” time, and when approached by peers are not overly anxious and will often interact in socially competent ways. Anxiously withdrawn children, on the other hand, begin to experience peer difficulties as early as preschool (Coplan, Prakash, O’Neil, & Armer, 2004). If approached by a peer, anxiously withdrawn children become reticent and have difficulty interacting competently. These children are more likely to blame themselves for social difficulties than typical children, and these internalizing tendencies can lead to increased depression and anxiety (Burgess, Wojslawowicz, Rubin, Rose-Kransor, & Booth-LaForce, 2006).

One important difference between social withdrawal and attachment re-search has been the focus on the indi-vidual child rather than the relationship between the child and a caregiver. This focus has led to the discovery of several biological differences that help explain why anxiously withdrawn children have more difficulty in social situations than their nonwithdrawn peers. For example, inhibited and withdrawn children have higher baseline levels of cortisol, an important stress hormone, than their more typical peers (Schmidt et al., 1997). Anxiously withdrawn children also show evidence of higher generalized cortical brain activation, which is a marker of increased vigilance (Henderson, Marshall, Fox, & Rubin, 2004). Importantly, these biological differences are somewhat stable and may carry forward as children age. Schwartz and colleagues (2003) found that adults who were identified as shy when they were two years old have more active amygdalas (fear and emotion center of the brain) when presented with unfamiliar faces. Evidence also indicates that shy children have lower vagal tone (higher is considered better) than nonshy children (Hastings, Rubin, & DeRose, 2005; Henderson et al., 2004; Rubin, Hastings, Stewart, Henderson & Chen, 1997). The vagus nerve plays an important role in the parasympathetic nervous system and helps bring the heart rate back under con-trol after a stress response. If we think of cortisol, generalized cortical activation, and the amygdala as biological indicators of reactivity and vagal tone as a biological marker of regulatory ability, these studies would suggest that shy and withdrawn children are more reactive and have great-er difficulty regulating those reactions than nonshy peers.

Couching these findings in terms of homesickness, leaving the familiarity of home and heading to a new place with unfa-miliar peers may be particularly distressing for socially withdrawn children. These children are more likely to experience severe stress responses and be less capable of regulating those stress responses than their nonwithdrawn counterparts. Fixating on home may be less an issue of attachment than a desire to escape the stress of camp, re-enter a familiar setting, and exert some control over the situation. If homesickness is driven in part by children’s predisposi-tions to withdraw and avoid novel social experiences, what does that mean for the camp staff?

Advice for Camp Staff

What is important to understand from the brief description of social withdrawal is that anxiously withdrawn children are more reactive and less capable of reigning in their reactions than non-withdrawn peers. If the premise that anxious withdrawal can lead to homesickness is sound, then helping children by reducing reactivity and improving self-regulation may go a long way toward helping homesick campers. Based on this notion, here are a number of strategies camp staff can use:

Familiarize new campers who are at risk of homesickness with the camp facili-ties, activities, and any important cul-tural norms. If parents are especially concerned about homesickness, invite them and their children to tour the facilities before camp starts (Thurber & Walton, 2007).

Work to minimize the potential for embarrassment by making activities relatively free from social evaluation (Evans, 2001).

Give genuine and deserved praise (Brophy, 1981) when homesick children participate socially or try a new activity. Also be sure to congratulate them when they demonstrate the abil-ity to effectively regulate their nega-tive emotions.

Attempt to involve homesick children indirectly. Being too forceful prevents the homesick child from learning to integrate socially and may lead himor her to become overly reliant on the counselor to gain access to the social group (Burgess, Rubin, Cheah, & Nelson, 2005).

Fantasy play activities can help home-sick children maintain their focus on the present by adding some excitement and breaking down existing social roles (Evans, 2001; Thurber & Walton, 2007).

Incorporate activities that are truly co-operative and require “all hands on deck” (Evans, 2001). If possible, design these activities to play to the strengths of the homesick camper. For example, if he or she is particularly knowledge-able in camp craft, create a challenge for the group that includes those more familiar skills.

Use games and activities that have pre-scribed roles and tasks (Evans, 2001). Homesick campers will be able to in-teract with their peers but will not experience the associated stress of try-ing to gain initial acceptance into the peer group.

Identify stimuli that trigger feelings of homesickness and coach children to recognize when they start to experience these stressors. Work to minimize chil-dren’s experience of those stimuli and provide constructive ways to channel resulting feelings of anxiety. For ex-ample, have children write about their homesick feelings when they occur, in-cluding what caused them and at least one way to help reduce their anxiety. Counselors may need to offer sugges-tions about particular strategies, such as writing a letter home to find out how family members are doing. Contrary to conventional wisdom, talking about home and discussing homesick feel-ings does not make homesickness worse (Thurber, 1999).

Note that no prevention or interven-tion strategy is going to be universally effective. Every homesick child will present slightly different challenges, and counselors will need to alter their  approach accordingly.

Regardless of the specifics of any one case, the general hope among camp professionals is that severely homesick campers, with the proper support, can push through their anxiety, stick out the session, and leave ready to return next year. Reitman’s character Rudy embodied another important feature of homesickness in Meatballs. When campers overcome homesickness, it becomes an incredible source of pride and accomplishment. Not surprisingly, when counselors help their campers achieve this personal victory, they end up feeling a little proud and accomplished themselves. In both cases, the feelings are certainly warranted.

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The author wishes to thank undergrad-uate research assistants Cassandra Salerno and Sophie Weiss for their assistance in collecting and summarizing empirical studies of homesickness.
Matthew Barstead, MS, is a former camp program director at YMCA Camp Tockwogh and current doctoral student at the University of Maryland where he studies child and adolescent social development. Contact the author at barstead@umd.edu.