The first time Lisa Fleming dropped her children off at sleepaway camp, she was a nervous wreck.
“I was so worried,” Fleming says. “I had a miserable week.”
Luckily, none of her fears were realized. “They had the most amazing week ever and were crying when we picked them up,” she says. “They didn’t want to leave their friends and counselors.”
This summer, she’s dropping off her 10-year-old son — the youngest of her three kids — at the same camp (Camp Quest Chesapeake, an educational adventure camp in Courtland, Va., about a three-hour drive from D.C.) with a lot more peace of mind.
It’s normal for parents to be anxious about sending their kids to sleepaway camp for the first time, but the best camps are well equipped to handle common camper problems, such as:
1. What if they get homesick?
It’s a heart-wrenching scenario: A few days after dropping your child off at camp, you get the first letter from them and they’re … miserable.
Maria Zimmitti, president of Georgetown Psychology Associates, says homesickness is normal and fortunately only lasts a couple of days in most cases.
“It’s just really important to talk about it,” she says. Explain to your child: “This is something you may feel; lots of kids feel this way and that’s OK. It gets better; that feeling goes away,” Zimmitti says.
Sarah Henry, camp director at Camp Quest Chesapeake, says the staff is trained on how to handle homesick campers. One of the first things they’ll do is have the camper write a letter home, so she urges parents not to panic if that first letter is a little gloomy.
“You have to trust the process,” she says. “Almost every child gets homesick. … Your camp is equipped to handle that.”
Other strategies include getting kids excited about camp activities, or getting them to bond with other first-time campers, says Tom Bryant, director of Camp Hidden Meadows in the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia. If it gets really bad, Bryant may call parents to brainstorm a solution together, but it rarely comes to that, he says.
There is one way parents can keep homesickness at bay, Zimmitti says: Make sure camp isn’t a child’s first sleepover.
“You have to build up to camp, especially if you have an anxious child,” she says.
2. What if they get hurt?
Fleming says her biggest fear when she first sent her kids to camp was that they would get hurt.
“I was worried for their safety,” she says.
But her kids were in good hands with the camp staff and counselors. “Other than some bug bites, they were good,” she says.
Camp Quest Chesapeake and Camp Hidden Meadows have nurses on-site, as do many other camps. Fleming recommends parents make sure they’re comfortable with the activities being offered at the camp, and if they have specific safety questions — like whether kids will be able to wander around camp on their own — to get them addressed before camp starts.
3. What about allergies or other health concerns?
Allergic reactions are serious business, which is why it’s important for parents to make sure they are upfront about all their child’s allergies on the health histories that most camps have parents fill out. Most camps also require proof of immunizations, and are able to cater to various dietary needs.
“We deal with gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan [diets],” Bryant says. “We’re happy to.”
Henry notes that most camps won’t even let peanuts on the property anymore because of allergy concerns.
“Be upfront and open about what your needs are,” Henry says. “They’re generally very easy to accommodate.”
4. What if my child has anxiety?
If a child is anxious about a particular activity, like swimming, Zimmitti recommends building their confidence before camp.
“The more they can practice the thing they’re worried about, the better,” she says.
You can’t always predict what a child will be anxious about, she adds, but the fact that they may not be able to skip out on activities at camp might work in their favor.
“Sometimes that’s what anxious kids need,” she says. “They need to feel stressed and anxious and do it anyway, and see that … the world didn’t end.”
Parents should let camp staff know if their child has general anxiety or is anxious about particular activities, Henry says.
“We encourage our campers to push their boundaries,” she says. “We want them to expand their comfort zones, but we don’t want them to have a negative experience.”
Success can be measured in different ways. For a child with a fear of heights, getting a foot or two up the rock-climbing wall is still a success, Henry says.[Running behind? Here’s how to find a summer camp that still has spaces open.]
5. What if there’s a bully?
Anytime a group of kids comes together, there’s always the risk of bullying or cliques.
“You certainly wouldn’t want your child to stay in a situation where they were feeling disconnected, rejected [or] bullied,” Zimmitti says. “That’s not what camp is supposed to be about.”
At Camp Hidden Meadows, staff has received special training on bullying, Bryant says.
“We try to do our best to create an environment where a child feels comfortable coming and talking to any one of the staff members,” he says. “And then also making sure the kids understand that it’s not tolerated.”
At Camp Quest Chesapeake, there are guidelines for what a child can get sent home for, such as physical fighting, Henry says. With other forms of bullying, camp staff prefers to sit down with the kids (together and separately) and come up with a solution, such as moving a child to a different cabin.
Bryant says camper problems like these are easily outweighed by the benefits of sleepaway camps: new friends and adventures, and a sense of pride about flying solo.
For Fleming, after that first hard year, sending her kids to summer camp has been worry-free.
“I wish I’d done it sooner,” she says