Summer camp/summer school

My Child Hates Sleepaway Camp. Should I Let Him Come Home Early?

By Jim Rein

Help! My child is miserable at sleepaway camp and wants to come home. What should I do?

Jim Rein

Former Dean, Vocational Independence Program, New York Institute of Technology

Before you decide whether to bring your child home early, step back and evaluate the situation. Ask yourself some important questions:

How long has your child been at camp?

Is this his first sleepaway experience? If it is, and if he’s only been there for a few days, explain that it’s OK to be homesick. It simply means that he likes his home and misses it. Point out that he’s not the only camper who’s homesick. Mention that even counselors get homesick. Suggest counselors or staff he can talk to about his feelings.

If possible, talk about when you were a kid and felt homesick at camp. But emphasize how you came to love camp and have lots of fun memories from camp. Bring up other situations where you or he started out not liking something but over time got to really enjoy it.

If this isn’t your child’s first sleepaway experience, is this his first time at this particular camp? Did he get homesick at the previous camp? Are there any similarities or differences between the camps that might help you understand why he wants to come home now?

Have you talked with camp staff to confirm what your child is telling you?

You may not be getting a complete picture from your child. He might have enjoyed several activities at camp but is only telling you about the bad stuff. Ask a staff member to fill you in. Also ask if there are any campers your child has had good interactions with.

Then, when you speak with your child, you can ask about any friends the staff has told you about or activities that he has done well in. Validate your child’s feelings, but focus on positive aspects of camp. Express pride in his efforts and accomplishments.

Also, provide strategies to staff that will help your child with specific situations, such as a nightlight, extra time to change clothes or the need to understand a new activity in advance.

Have you written to your child every day?

If not, start doing that. Letters from you, even if they’re very short, can help reduce homesickness. Ideally, your letters could discuss routine, even boring things. This can reassure your child everything at home is OK and will be the same as when he left. You could mention that you took the dog for a walk. Then you went to the grocery store and had a nice chat with Grandma, who’s already looking forward to seeing him at Thanksgiving.

If possible, avoid telling him any dramatic news that has happened since he went to camp, such as a pet dying or your family deciding to move to another state. If you need to share potentially troubling information with your child, tell camp staff members first. Ask them watch your child carefully and be ready to step in with appropriate support.

Also, if you haven’t already done so, send your child a care package he can share with his bunkmates, such as food, games, comics and joke books. This can help your child make friends and feel more positive in general about being at camp.

If he came home, what would his options be?

Are any of his friends at home? Tell him he needs to stay another five days so you can look for a day program at home, since he can’t be alone while you’re at work.

If possible, try to avoid planning any trips or other special events he might want to leave camp early so he can be a part of. Emphasize how boring home will be compared to camp!

Did you promise that your child could come home early if he wasn’t having a good time?

If you did, he may be testing you to see if you will be true to your word. For the first time he’s sharing the adults with other kids and tells you—and the counselors—things to get more attention.

The main thing you and the counselors can do is buy yourself more time before deciding whether your child should come home. Set a time period—maybe five days, maybe more—and tell him that if at the end of this time period he still wants to come home, you’ll come and get him. Or, if visiting day isn’t too far off, tell him that you’ll take him back home then. But make sure that anything you tell him, you will stick with. Hopefully, during that extra time, he’ll start to relax, have some fun and decide he wants to stay after all.

About the Author

Portrait of Jim Rein

Jim Rein

Jim Rein, M.A., has lectured around the country on postsecondary options and summer programs for children and young adults with learning and attention issues.

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