Helping Your Child Transition from Sleepaway Camp to Home
It was 1982. I was seven years old. With tears in my eyes and butterflies in my stomach, I summoned all of my courage and slowly walked down the jet way, never looking back at my parents who watched apprehensively, waiting for me to glance over my shoulder for one last goodbye.
And although I don’t remember all the details of the plane ride, someone notified my parents that I'd gone up to the cockpit and asked the pilot to turn the plane around. I’d changed my mind about going to sleepaway camp.
Fast-forward four weeks. After getting home from the airport, I stubbed my toe in our garage. “Aw, shit,” I muttered under my breath. I looked up and saw both of my parents frozen in shock. What had sleepaway camp done to their baby?
Returning home from sleepaway camp can be a challenging transition for kids and parents alike. But understanding your child’s experience and managing your own expectations can make the days or weeks after camp run a lot more smoothly.
Your child’s experience and coming home
When your child comes home from sleepaway camp, you can expect at least two things for sure: 1) he will have become a different version of himself while away; and 2) there will be a transition period of adjusting to life at home.
It’s nearly impossible for kids to go to sleepaway camp without being transformed in some way. While not every child can say they enjoyed camp, most would probably admit that the exposure to new people, encounters, and activities – without dependence on their parents – changed them. Such experiences have the potential to fulfill their three most basic emotional needs of connection, autonomy, and competence.
Among the top characteristics that parents notice in their kids who come back from camp are increased maturity, self-sufficiency, and self-esteem. Even kids that struggle socially or with homesickness develop skills that help them endure these difficulties while at camp.
By the end of summer, most kids are happy to see their parents and get back to the comforts of home – clean sheets, home-cooked meals, and long, hot showers. At the same time, they’re emotional about camp ending and saying goodbye to their friends. Some cry or appear withdrawn; others swing between cheerfulness and sadness or irritability. Their moods may seem unpredictable and out of the ordinary to you, but it’s all totally normal under the circumstances.
How to Best support your child
Give your child the physical and emotional space to reconnect with you and to process what they’ve just been through. Offer lots of unstructured downtime and permission to sleep in, and take their lead when it comes to talking about their experiences or being ready to socialize with family and friends.
Try to appreciate how difficult it can be for them to disengage from an always-stimulating and autonomous way of life and then to re-adjust to a more humdrum existence at home abiding by your family rules and expectations. Plan on a few power struggles and backtalk (and maybe even some swearing) 😉
According to Dr. Michael Thompson, a psychologist and author of Homesick and Happy, strong feelings of campsickness only last about 2-4 days and then subside. If moodiness, anxiety, or other symptoms of depression persist for more than two weeks, please seek help from a mental health professional.
Whatever you do – don’t take their behavior personally or as a sign of rejection. I promise it isn’t about you.
Other ideas for a smooth transition
During your child's time away from you, he routinely made his own bed, made plenty of daily decisions, and survived without being constantly tethered to an electronic device. Take advantage of this window of time before school starts again to set up new routines around chores and screen time that incorporate these new skills and abilities.
Above all else, use this transition time to connect deeply with your child. Give lots of encouragement for everything he achieved over the summer without you by his side, and listen with curiosity and empathy (not judgment) to the stories he'll tell about his adventures at camp. When you do, he'll be more likely to realize that while camp was amazing, there's really no place like home 🙂
Questions and answers
I asked a few of my friends whose kids just came home from camp to submit their questions for this post. Here are a few of them:
Q: My daughter seems to have forgotten how to do the dishes—she just piles them in the sink since she’s been home from camp. When I remind her to wash them, she groans and rolls her eyes at me. WTF??
A: Yes, I felt the same way when I got home from a cruise this summer! Since I'm an adult, I recognize there’s no one else to do it for me. Gently but firmly remind your daughter that every place has its systems, and at your home, everyone does their own dishes. You can certainly empathize with her and let her know you see her point of view— it's hard to come home from vacation!
Q: How much do I push our eating expectations after weeks of them eating on their own?
A: Similar to my answer above, you can explain that different foods are served at home than at camp. But while you’re responsible for providing healthy meals, it's your child's responsibility to eat them – or not. Mealtimes should be enjoyable, not adversarial.
Q: What kind of questions can I ask to get information about camp other than, “it was great?”
A: You want to make sure you're asking open-ended questions (rather than questions requiring a simple yes or no answer). Some examples are: What did you accomplish at camp that surprised you? What new skill did you pick up that you feel proud of? If you were making a commercial for camp, what would you talk about to entice people to come? What's your plan for keeping in touch with your friends during the year?
Got a question about the transition from camp to home? Leave it in the comments below and I'll answer it for you! Or share how you've helped ease the transition from camp to home. We can all learn from each other!
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