Conquering Homesickness: A Life Lesson in Resilience

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Homesickness, the feeling is different for different kids, but the discomfort can be profound. And it isn’t necessarily limited to campers; even camp staff can feel it.  But as parents and kids prepare for the camp experience, being mindful of homesickness and how to manage it is a key element for a successful summer.

Last weekend, hundreds of camp administrators and staff gathered in Manchester, NH for the annual American Camp Association New England conference. One of the dozens of workshops offered focused exclusively on the issue of homesickness – its causes, its impact, and ways to manage it in ways that build resiliency and give kids reasons to feel a true sense of victory.

Danny Kerr, director of Camp Pemigewassett, a boys’ camp in Wentworth, NH, conducted the workshop, an interactive opportunity for camp personnel to share their insights and approaches to the issue.  Homesickness is an “inevitable reality,” Kerr said. And overcoming it “is one of the most empowering experiences a camper can have,” he said.

At Camp Pemi, Kerr said, only about 20 of 170 boys in camp feel the pain of homesickness to a degree that requires intervention. Within a week all but a handful are back on track and feeling good.  Only a few boys struggle for the full camp session, Kerr said.

But Kerr acknowledges that in recent years, “homesickness has taken on a new life.” One reason is a “recurring theme of parents promising to come get them if they’re homesick.”

“Parents aren’t as resilient as they used to be,” Kerr said. And parenting looks different these days. “Kids are so used to having any obstacle solved by a parent,” he said.

That reality makes the experience of conquering homesickness even more powerful. The key to making that happen lies with the camper, Kerr said. “Homesickness needs to be solved by campers,” he said. “They need to be invested in the solution.”

And most are, he said.

Kerr prescribed several steps to helping campers get back on track. A key question for staff to ask is straightforward: “If we could figure out a way to be at camp and not be homesick, would you like to do it?”

Another question focuses on what campers are trying to do to feel better, and whether it is working. If it’s not, staff can help campers brainstorm different ideas. By making a plan with campers, then following up, staff can support campers in finding ways to feel better.

A key is to remind campers that homesickness is entirely normal, Kerr said.

“It’s very natural to feel homesick,” he said, because home “is a source of belonging, love, power and freedom.” But there are ways to feel exactly that way at camp, he said.

Early morning and evening hours are prime homesick hours, Kerr said, because they are less structured and offer campers time to think. Bedtime routines are key, as is teaching campers skills to adjusting to their new environment. That may mean thinking about activities they enjoy, or even stopping to inventory what they are grateful for. It’s all about “replacing pictures with equally powerful pictures.”

Courtesy Camp Wawenock

Catriona Sangster, director of girls’ Camp Wawenock in Raymond and President of Maine Summer Camps, a membership organization of more than 120 Maine camps, differentiates homesickness from “missing home.”  The former, where a child can’t eat or participate in activities, is extremely rare, she said.

“What we see is ‘missing home,’” she said. A child may be teary at mealtime, or in the morning when no one is awake.

“Our goal is to keep kids as engaged as possible,” she said. Staying involved and “getting excited about doing things at camp makes the feelings less pervasive.”

Supporting a child who misses home can look different depending on the child, Sangster said. “It could be anything from getting a hug to writing a letter or in a journal” about the fun she is having.

Addressing the issues of missing home is a “huge focus” of the first week of camp, Sangster said. “We find that as soon as children feel at home, then that mitigates that feeling.”

“We normalize it. It’s normal to miss home.”

And overcoming those uncomfortable feelings teaches resilience, Sangster said. It also teaches campers that there are places besides camp that are “caring, trusting places.”

Courtesy Camp Winnebago

At Camp Winnebago, a boys’ camp in Fayette, director Andy Lilienthal says campers who are homesick experience more than just missing home, they are adjusting to a different routine.

“I would say that even with returning campers, a great number of them are homesick in one form or another,” he said. Most adjust within a few days, he said.

A key to managing the discomfort is helping boys identify what they like to do, and “steering them toward it,” Lilienthal said. “I say to kids, ‘Our goal is for you to feel a little bit better each day,’” he said. Regular check-ins can help.

“There’s a balance between indulging them and also steering them into activities and getting them used to a new routine,” he said. “Once they feel known and loved and part of a new community,” they usually do well.

Calls home are not the solution, he said. “I explain to them that even though they want to talk to Mom,” it’s not a helpful long-term solution. Rather, it is a “crutch into an old paradigm,” he said.

“When we frame it, say to them ‘this is really about you becoming independent for the rest of your life,’” they get a different perspective.

Training counselors to help homesick campers focuses on helping them understand that coming to camp creates “a larger kind of emotional landscape,” Lilienthal said. Counselors are helping campers “building new paradigms of how to rely on other people.”

“A lot of work with counselors is moving from empathy to sympathy to action,” he said.

Like Sangster, Lilienthal said the camp also tries to guide parents on what to expect. By helping parents coach their children prior to camp, praising them for taking on the challenge of being away from home and building them up, “kids know parents have their back.”  The camp also sends parents a letter describing what they might see in a child’s first letter home, he said.

“I equate homesickness to culture shock,” Lilienthal said. “It’s something almost everyone goes through when they are placed in a new environment.”

While a child adjusting to camp may feel sad and scared and lonely at first, he or she is also embarking on a powerful journey toward independence. Campers may not realize it, but learning to manage the discomfort of missing family and home helps develop skills that will carry far beyond those weeks at summer camp.

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