You send your child off to camp or away to visit an aunt for two weeks, all with the best of intentions. Then you get the phone call. Maria is homesick, and you feel terrible.
“Going away to camp or to visit friends or relatives can have many positive benefits, such as learning about the world, meeting new people, and trying new things. Sometimes being a little bit out of one’s comfort zone leads to a sense of growth and increases confidence and self-esteem,” said Dr. Bruce Waslick, chief of Child Psychiatry at Baystate Medical Center.
Levels of maturity
”While away, many children will miss their family members and their home environment, people and things that are familiar to them and help them feel safe. But, it is important for parents to understand that to some degree homesickness is normal, and not a sign of weakness or mental health problems,” he added.
It is important to realize that kids mature at different rates. What that means is that what may be a great experience for one child may be overwhelming to another child, and what may be overwhelming to a child this year might be a major growth experience the next year.
Dr. Waslick suggests trying to match the camp or visit experience with the readiness of your child.
“If kids are not really ready to do something this year, err on the side of caution and come up with an alternative experience for this summer, but re-visit whether this might be a better match for them next summer when they are older,” he said.
When you get the call
Upon learning that your child is homesick at a summer camp, talk to the camp staff first.
“Remember, a certain amount of homesickness is normal, and most camp staffs will have ways of very effectively dealing with homesick campers. Parents should trust the camp staff in their ability to deal with homesickness in a positive way,” Dr. Waslick said. “They are also in the best position to determine if the homesickness is relatively minor and can be handled at the camp, or more severe requiring other supports or interventions.”
Most camps set up times or channels of communication to interact with campers. Parents should be positive and supporting and remind their child why everyone felt it was a good idea to go to the camp or on the visit in the first place.
Dr. Waslick suggests that parents take their cues from camp staff in terms of their involvement with their child’s experience.
“If a camp wants a parent to try to increase their communication with their child, the parent should try this approach. Parents can share with their children that feeling homesick is normal, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the child should go home, and that given a certain amount of time, homesickness generally diminishes or fades away,” the Baystate child psychiatrist said.
If camp staff suggests decreased levels of communication, parents should be willing to try this as well.
“Follow the recommendations suggested by the camp staff as a first step and see how it goes,” said Dr. Waslick said.
However, even for children with more severe homesickness that doesn’t go away in a few days, going to camp or on a visit can be a great way to learn how to deal with challenges and distress.
“Everything about the camp or visit does not have to be perfect. For some kids, they will end up feeling that the experience was a ’mixed bag’ and that is okay. Kids learn about themselves by having these kinds of experiences, and they learn to deal with and manage challenges,” Dr. Waslick said.
On the other hand, if a child really cannot manage being away from home or family this summer, and needs to cut the camp experience or visit short, parents need to be supportive.
“Try your best to temper any frustration, anger or annoyance with your child. It is better just to take the attitude that it didn’t work out this summer for whatever reason, and to try to support your child having positive experiences for the rest of the summer,” Dr. Waslick said.
While unusual, severe homesickness that continues each summer and leads to your child avoiding wanting to be away from home can be an indicator of a more serious issue, such as an anxiety disorder.
Parents should seek the counsel of their child’s pediatrician in cases of recurrent homesickness. The goal is to determine if their child would benefit from a mental health consultation to determine if there is a clinical reason for the problem, then create a plan of action to address it.