Sending kids to sleep away camp or grandma’s house for the summer means excitement and probably some fear, especially if it’s a new experience.
Missing mom and dad, feeling nervous about making friends or being scared of the dark doesn’t mean kids won’t have a fun-filled summer.
Part of your child’s success depends on preparation done before they leave home, said Stephanie Kohlbeck, Ph.D., a Marshfield Children’s child psychologist.
There isn’t a right time
“There’s no magical age when every child is ready to spend the night away from home,” Kohlbeck said. “Some kids go to camp for a month starting at 6 years old. Other kids don’t want to sleep away from home even as teens.”
Don’t take your child’s worry as a sign he’s not ready, she said. Remember, everyone gets anxious about trying new things and you can help your child get ready for the experience. It’s important to talk to your child about what to expect.
Start small and build. Prepare your child for overnight camp by setting up a tent in the backyard where he can sleep alone safely but still come in the house if he needs to. Send him to stay with a grandparent for a few days or a week if he’ll be spending most of the summer there. You can also practice routines such as teeth brushing, showering, hair brushing, and bedtime.
If rehearsals go badly and your child insists he doesn’t want to leave home, reconsider your plans.
“Don’t send your children to sleep-away camp if you think they won’t do well,” Kohlbeck said. “A bad experience will make it more difficult for them to spend the night away from home in the future.”
Focus on fun
Get kids excited about time away from home by talking about fun things they’ll do. Look at the camp website to help kids get familiar with their surroundings. Let them pick special sleeping bags, overnight bags or outfits for their adventure.
Build confidence by reminding them they’ll do great on their own.
Don’t focus on aspects of camp that might make your child nervous, like sleeping in a cabin without lights.
If you’re more nervous than your child, try not to let it show. “If parents are worried, kids will think it’s going to be really scary,” Kohlbeck said.
Teach coping skills
“Let kids know it’s normal to feel nervous and scared when they’re away from home, especially during downtime like before they go to sleep,” Kohlbeck said. “Prepare them so they’re not surprised by their feelings and they know how to cope.”
Looking at a family photo, holding a favorite toy or singing a special song helps many kids feel better.
Schedule times to call or text your child so he feels reassured before anxiety sets in. If phones aren’t allowed, stamp and address postcards or envelopes with your child before he leaves so he easily can keep in touch.
Remind kids they can talk to a trusted adult about problems or fears. Let the adults in charge know if your child has a history of anxiety.