Wood's Homes Blog

Home is where the heart is: Separations and growth (Part II)

July 26, 2018
By Dr. Angelique Jenney, Wood's Homes Research Chair in Children's Mental Health
Home is where the heart is: Separations and growth (Part II)

Last month, I talked about the importance of instilling a sense of home in our children that they can carry with them throughout their lives.  This month, I’ve been thinking about some of the ways in which separation can be a rite of passage for children (and their parents) resulting in positive feelings of independence and self-esteem, while still invoking a sense of connection.  Recently, we’ve been hearing a lot about the distressing impact of forced separations, such as those happening over the border or when those Thai boys were trapped in the cave for several weeks.  Those separations are terrifying and distressing for both children and their parents, mostly because they can’t be planned for and no one knows what is happening.   Developmentally, the first formal separations for children involve day care and starting school; however, as in nature, a parent’s true role is preparing children for lives of their own, while still maintaining a sense of connection and belonging to family.  Those are normal natural separations that involve careful preparation, but not everyone will have an easy time of it.  The summer months offer up a new challenge for children and their parents: overnight summer camp. Here are a few tips for thinking about this new experience:

1. Preparation, Planning and Choice: New situations can often trigger feelings of distress and anxiety that are commonly managed by turning to a caregiver for support.  When those feelings come up and you’re on your own, these feelings can be magnified – so, before the separation happens, the more information you can have about it the better.  Start with how the camp gets chosen.  Was this the camp you went to as a child and loved?  What was it about this camp that was important to you?  Will it have the same meaning for your child?  Maybe, maybe not.  Perhaps this is a new opportunity that has been chosen based on your child’s interests (such as computer camp, horseback riding camp, hockey camp, etc.) A sense of choice about where they are going (and why) can go a long way in your child’s motivation to go to overnight camp.  So if you are thinking about camp as an option, present the idea to your child and see how it goes:  “When I was your age I was fortunate enough to go to an overnight camp, I was thinking you might enjoy that experience too?  What do you think?  Do any of your friends go to camp?  Is there something that you are particularly interested in that we could find a camp for?”

2. Knowledge is Power: How much do you and your child know about the camp they are going to?  Have you spent time looking at brochures or websites?  Some camps even offer tours or overnight trials to help your child become more comfortable with the idea.  What might a typical day look like?  Mapping out how it might look could go a long way in helping your child have a sense of ‘mastery’ before they’ve even left on the adventure.  “It says here you have the option of swimming or volleyball everyday, which do you think you would like best? Wow, look at these cabins!  I wonder how they choose which bunk you get?”

3. You can take a piece of home with you: What aspect of home can a child take with them that will make them feel close and connected?  Depending on the age of the child, this could be a beloved stuffy, toy, book or piece of clothing.  Their choices can tell you a lot about how they are internalizing a sense of ‘home’.  Sometimes, even getting something new for camp can be a way of transitioning well.  “Let’s look at the list of things to bring that the camp recommends, which items are you going to choose?  Tell me about why taking that with you is so important.  Is there something on the list that you don’t have yet?  We should make a special trip to get you that item and save it for your first day of camp!”

4. What’s the worst thing that can happen? This is a question that adults often ask their children, usually when they want to downplay the risk of a situation. But for children who are going into the unknown, it’s a good idea to strategize some solutions to worries that they might have, such as “What if I don’t like camp/fellow campers/the food?”, “What if I don’t make friends?” or “What if I want to come home?” It’s a good idea to talk about these concerns and see what ideas your child might have for dealing with them.  Remind them that they have already dealt with some of these issues while going to school and draw on competencies they already have. For example, “Remember how worried you were when you first joined soccer?  You made a friend on the first night of practice – how did you do that?   Remember how you were upset when a child on the opposing team made fun of you when you didn’t score?  How did you handle that?  How do you feel about it now?”  These are all good ways of reminding children that they already have skills, but it’s also a way of illustrating how time-limited everything really is.  Soon they will be back from camp, just like they can look back on the first day of soccer.

5. You will get homesick, and that’s normal and absolutely OK: Instead of telling your child things such as, “You won’t even miss us you will be having so much fun”, “It will go so fast you won’t know where the time went” or “I promise you, you won’t want to come home when we come to get you”, think about ways of alleviating, instead of denying, the anxiety about missing you.   The best strategy for homesickness is distraction, so helping your child identify what they could do to make themselves feel better is a great start.  “You know when you have a bad day at home how much you like to get into your Harry Potter books?  That’s a good way to feel better when you are down, so we will be sure to pack your favourite one of those.  But what if you can’t go back to your cabin and read?  What else could you do?  You could talk to a camp counselor about how you are feeling, and get them to help you find an activity or start a game that helps get your mind in a different place.”

6. We are always here: How can you help kids foster that sense of connection that comes with communication?  Overnight camps often have rules about no technology (and there are very good reasons for this and, unfortunately, homesickness is not generally improved by calling home). Letter-writing, specific times for calling home, visiting days, etc. are some of the ways in which summer camps support connection, while also offering up the opportunity to develop skills in independence and self-regulation. Even in the case of the trapped Thai boys, the transfer of letters was an important part of staying connected and creating a sense of hope for the future. Putting together a package that has paper, pens, envelopes and stamps could be a fun way of preparing for this.  Camp is also a great time to start a journal. For example, “I found this book that you can write in every night and describe something fun you did that you would want to tell us about when you come home.  Think about how you feel telling us that story.  This is also a good place to put your feelings or thoughts when you don’t want to talk to other people about them, and it’s a great place to keep all the camp memories that you don’t want to lose.”

7. We will come and get you: At the end of the day, if things were really so bad that your child was not able to eat, sleep or function, you would absolutely go and get them. That might not be what you want, but it is your child’s worst-case scenario – being distressed beyond their ability to cope.  If you’ve worked through the first six points, number seven is unlikely; however, it can go a long way to alleviating anxiety to know that, no matter what happens at camp, you have not abandoned them and are still out there if all of the other strategies fail. You could say, “We don’t think it will come to this, but if camp turns out to not really be for you and you are suffering there, we will come and get you.  We would hope that you would try all of the strategies we’ve worked on together first but, if you are truly miserable, you can always come home. 

8. Camp is temporary, but the experience can change you forever: This is likely the most important point of all. For some children, this first, real opportunity to manage in a world that is different from the one they live in every day can be life altering.  Independence, courage, the chance to try new things and meet new people can foster skills of resilience and success for years to come. 

How you and your child(ren) manage summer camp and other separations has a lot to do with temperament and coping strategies.  Every child (and parent) is different and will need different things.  Children who struggle with change and transition will need the most preparation, while others might need minimal support.  The best way to find out is to ask.  Going away from home is the first step in learning how to take a bit of home with you and find that place inside your heart where the feelings you have about yourself and your family live (even when you aren’t with them).  A gift that keeps on giving, packaged up right inside of us every day.