Strategies for Addressing Homesickness
**This is a continuation of our Counselor Skills Series, where we share some of the specific training we do with our counselors to make sure that your children enjoy the benefit of getting to know exceptional role models while at camp. You can find the other articles in this series here: The First 48 Hours, Confidence, and Discipline.
Homesickness can be a very normal part of the camp experience, especially for first time campers. It can feel unsettling to be thrust into a new environment with unfamiliar people, and it probably should. Chris Thurber has found that 95% of campers experience some homesickness, but only a tiny proportion experience unrelenting homesickness.
Nearly all campers struggle briefly (the first day or two is most common) and then realize that they will be okay and are capable of regulating themselves away from home. This is part of the natural process of growing up and an important skill to develop, assuming we don't want our kids living at home forever. Fortunately, a well-trained counselor can help accelerate the process of overcoming homesickness so that growth is achieved and the struggle is kept to a minimum.
Take a look at how we train our counselors to talk with campers about homesickness:
Homesickness is essentially the fear that the camper does not have what it takes to survive away from home, which makes the camper feel unsafe.
There are a few important things that we do to proactively create an environment where homesickness is less likely to be felt:
- Establish a strong relationship right off the bat.
Opening Day is critical, and our counselors’ primary responsibility for the first afternoon is to learn as much as possible about each camper to demonstrate an interest in them and make them feel cared for.
- Orient the campers.
It’s scary not to know where you will eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom. But it goes beyond just telling campers where these things will happen. Our counselors take care to explain when and how these daily activities take place, emphasizing that the campers won’t be in it alone: “This is the dining hall where we will eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Our cabin has a table that we will all get to sit at, and I’ll be there too so you can tell me about everything you’ve done so far each day.”
- Make them feel at home.
The ultimate goal is to make our campers feel comfortable at camp so that they can take advantage of all of the new opportunities available to them. Kids derive security and acceptance through the strong bonds they have with their parents, so our counselors tailor their language and actions to recreating those feelings away from home. This teaches campers confidence in their ability to find security and acceptance in relationships outside their home—a critical part of growing up!
Helping to Overcome Homesickness. No matter how effective our prevention strategies are, some campers will still feel homesick. That’s perfectly normal! Here’s how we help campers overcome this challenge:
- Normalize the feelings.
Campers are often embarrassed about feeling upset about being away from home. An important first step is to normalize the feelings by letting the camper know that it’s okay to miss home, and that most everyone does at some point. It can be very reassuring for a child to hear that even his or her 20-year old counselor misses home.
- Keep the camper active.
What does a homesick camper look like? Often slouched or curled up, head in hands, closed off to the rest of the world. This physical posture is important to creating the illusion of despair in a camper’s mind. It’s much harder to feel homesick while walking, talking, and interacting with someone. One trick our counselors love to use is to say something like, “Why don’t we go over to get a drink of water and you can tell me about it?” Getting the camper up and moving opens him or her to the possibility that things are going to be okay.
- Determine that the camper’s needs are being met.
Is he or she well rested? Is he or she well hydrated? Homesick feelings are often simply signs of tiredness or dehydration. While our normal systems are usually enough to meet these needs, off and on homesickness can be a sign that a particular camper needs a little extra attention to make sure that he or she resting and drinking enough.
- Keep the conversation short. There is little benefit to wallowing in homesickness for hours at a time. That sounds miserable! Our counselors are quick to normalize the feelings and offer support, but also quick to encourage redirection into an activity. They might say, “If you’d like to talk about this more after lunch I can do that with you, but right now why don’t we jump back in at free swim so we don’t miss the whole activity?” Then the counselor will be sure to check back in after lunch, but 75% of the time the camper will say that he or she is already doing better.
- Finally, the “Big Closer”. Through all of our research about how homesickness affects a child’s brain, there is one final statement that can have powerful impact on a child’s ability to overcome homesickness. Imagine that, as a young camper, a 20-year old role model whom you admire encouragingly says:
“You know, I’m really proud of you for deciding to come to camp this summer and take on a challenge that you don’t get to face during the rest of the year. It’s okay to miss home, and I’m impressed that you’re also trying to make the most of camp while you’re here. Let’s go have some fun.”
Not only does this put the experience of homesickness in positive terms, but it offers praise to the camper for deciding to take on the challenge in the first place. The goal is that this will encourage them to find the strength to overcome the challenge, too.
For us, addressing homesickness is all about teaching kids that they have the strength to overcome it. Trying to make the feelings go away is fruitless–they are there for a reason and a regular part of learning to live away from home. But empowering campers to self-regulate and be okay with missing home from time to time is a skill on which they will be able to rely for the rest of their lives.
* We believe that the way we train our counselors is among the best in the country. We are writing this blog series to share parts of what we teach during our 12-day orientation, so that you can feel secure in trusting your child to the supervision of our counselor role models.
See the full series here: Counselor Training Series
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