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Ask a Camp Director: Should I take my child out of sleepaway camp early?

Throughout the summer I field many questions from parents about our policies at Camp Walt Whitman. Since so many of my answers could easily apply to other camps, I’ve created this forum to answer the most common questions parents ask about sleepaway camp. Feel free to submit yours here for a future column.

It’s natural to wonder if your child feels at home at sleepaway camp. Early summer homesickness is not unusual, and you could get a pleading letter or have a tearful phone call that makes you wonder if your child will be able to embrace being away from home and whether you made the right decision.

Parenting expert and author Julie A. Ross, M.A., offers a helpful plan to put things in perspective. First, do you best to truly listen to what is upsetting your child, and second, get in touch with the camp directors to determine the seriousness of the situation. The vast majority of complaints, she says, have more to do with the child being resilient than with a real inability to adjust to camp life. They may not like to swim as often as they’re asked to or could be having a hard time resolving an issue with another camper. “These are not reasons to take them out of camp,” says Ross. “They are opportunities to help them learn to problem solve, to be resilient in less than ideal situations and to stand up for themselves.”

Here at camp, we expect some homesickness during the first few days of camp. It’s a normal part of the acclimation process for both new and returning campers. While 99% of the homesickness we see is part of the healthy adjustment to parental separation, we also have a very good sense of when a child is experiencing something other than run-of-the-mill homesickness. For a very small number of children, the stress of camp life—whether it’s from the constant social interaction, the physical demands, the lack of personal space, the attachment to parents, etc.—is just too overwhelming. We often see this stress manifest as antisocial behavior: running away from counselors, intentionally antagonizing other campers, not listening to staff, craving and doing anything for negative attention, or refusing to eat. When we see this behavior we attempt to address it immediately and get to the crux of what is causing it with the help of their parents. We recognize how hard it is to be hundreds of miles away and learn that your child is struggling, so we keep parents in the loop and view you as partners. If a child is having a hard time adjusting to camp we get in touch early to alert you and strategize together how to help your child. 

We always start by trying to work through the behavior by giving lots of support. For most campers, this staff support, combined with strategies of how to overcome their fears or anxieties here at camp, is sufficient to get them through these difficult times. 

However, for a very few number of campers, no matter how much support we provide, camp simply remains too stressful as they’re not at a developmental place where they are capable of thriving in a sleepaway camp setting.

Again, I’m not talking about standard homesickness, but stress that manifests itself in behavior that is not acceptable at camp and not healthy for a child. It’s in these incredibly rare circumstances that we would plan on an early departure. If the child’s behavior is too disruptive to other campers or the camp, this departure sometimes needs to happen before Visiting Day. If it is possible for a child to “make it” until Visiting Day, though, this can often provide the child with a sense of accomplishment and have them leave camp feeling good about themselves and the camp experience. To put things in perspective, there are years when this never happens, and times when it happens it might be once or twice in a summer.

And just to be clear, we don’t recommend taking your camper home on Visiting Day if he or she suddenly claims to want to leave! As I explain here, emotions are amplified for everyone on Visiting Day, especially when it comes to departure. If things were truly amiss, we would be in contact much earlier. 

Playing Sports and staying active all summer long at Camp Walt Whitman

Each year parents in New York pay thousands of dollars to send their children to day or sleep -away camp. Most children go willingly and happily. For others, however, the scenario is different.  The day camp child begins to exhibit anxiety and distress. They may refuse to go, some may exhibit physical symptoms like stomach pain or headaches, others become morose and withdrawn. From sleep-away camp, letters arrive home pleading to be picked up.  Phone calls home are tearful and distressing for parents and children alike. Parents begin to question themselves: was this the right decision? Am I causing my child actual long term harm?

But with thousands of dollars at stake, or with no place else to put your child during the summer when you work, what should you do? And, even if you don’t mind losing the money, or you don’t work and could accommodate your child at home for the summer, is taking them out of camp or leaving them in camp the right decision?  Here are a couple of things to keep in mind if you’re faced with this dilemma.

The vast majority of children who are distressed about camp are not experiencing any actual harm there.  Their reactions and emotions make it seem like you need to call 911, though, so it’s easy for you to panic if they’re distressed. Here’s an alternative to panicking:

First, do your due diligence to determine whether you think your child is coming to harm at the camp, or if they’re just uncomfortable, missing you, and having difficulty adjusting and being resilient.

Due diligence involves, first and foremost, Listening With Heart.  Often, as parents, we try to “cheerlead” our child out of their negative emotions. We say things like, “It’s going to get better, I promise!”  “I loved camp, you will too!” When we Listen With Heart, however, we acknowledge their discomfort, essentially opening up the lines of communication so that we can get a more accurate picture in case anything is actually wrong.

There are three ways to Listen With Heart:

  1. Say “Tell Me More.”  Example: Your child is complaining about camp.  They don’t like it, they don’t want to go, they want to come home. You say: “Tell me more.” Your child may remain general, “I just don’t like it.  I miss you.”
  2. Repeating Back.  “You miss me.”  Repeating Back is a powerful, yet underused technique.  Kids feel validated and heard when they hear the very thing they just said repeated back to them in an empathetic tone. Even if, in the first scenario using Tell Me More, they get more specific and open up some, Repeating Back is a great way to get them to feel understood by you. Remember this rule of thumb: If a child doesn’t feel like you “get it” they will ESCALATE their feelings in order for you to understand. So all of the cheerleading you might be tempted to do will inevitably backfire.
  3. Validate Feelings. Say, “It sounds like it’s hard to adjust,” “I hear you’re having a tough time,” “It seems like your homesick,” “Sounds like you’re feeling sad being away from me.”

Remember that your goal in this process is to try and get some insight as to whether something is happening to your child at camp or whether it’s run-of-the-mill “I’d rather be home playing video games” or “I miss my parents” stuff. To achieve this goal, the most important thing you can do is to Listen With Heart. It’s more important than talking. The more we keep our mouths closed and truly listen, the more likely we are to get the real story.

Now, if you come to believe that your child is being harmed in some way – there’s no question: take them out of camp!  However, remember that the vast majority of complaints are not ones in which a child is being harmed, but are more about the challenge of being resilient.  Maybe it’s not an idyllic situation. Maybe they have to swim three times a week and they don’t really like swimming. Maybe they’re having difficulty working something out with another camper.  These are not reasons to take them out of camp. They are opportunities to help them learn to problem solve, to be resilient in less than ideal situations and to stand up for themselves.  

If your child is in day camp, you can take advantage of the afternoons or weekends to brainstorm solutions with your child. This does NOT  mean giving your child advice, like “Why don’t we see if you can sit next to Suzy on the bus, that’ll make you feel better.” As parents, the solutions that may seem helpful to us are not necessarily helpful to our children. It’s far better to ask your child “What do you think you might be able to do about this?” Framed in this manner, your child then has the opportunity to either be more forthcoming about the issue at hand or to “own” a solution. Should your child be negative and say there’s nothing they can do, offer advice in question form: “What do you think would happen if you….” Some successful solutions other parents have offered in when they were in this situation include letting their child take a picture of the family with them to camp, giving the child something belonging to Mom or Dad that they can keep in their camp bag, or writing a note that their child can read at camp.

If your child is at sleep-away camp, talk to the camp. Remember that most camp directors are trained to handle just this type of difficulty and may have some wonderful “tried and true” solutions other than the ones mentioned in this article. In addition, speaking to the director or even the camp counselor may provide you with further insight as to why your child is experiencing difficulty. Often, the solution is simpler than we might imagine and will lead to your child having a successful and happy camp experience.