Parenting tips to help kids feel more confident away from home sweet home –whether it be a camp, sleepover, or playdate–based on the latest research
Mooommm… I want to come home! NOW!
But can’t you pleassse pick me up? I hate it here!
I don’t care how much you paid. Come get me now!
Ah the joys of camp …or that weekend with Grandma. Right? And we wanted our kids to come back sooo excited from their first time away from home. I’ll never forget sending my son to camp the first time. I’d combed the brochures to find just the perfect camp (or so I thought). Purchased the world’s best (or so said the store manager) sleeping bag and so-called “camp paraphernalia.” Said the right goodbyes! thought I did all the right things. He lasted forty-eight hours, before I finally drove to pick him up. We tried again (at his suggestion) the following year, but this time I didn’t focus on the sleeping bag. I put my energy instead on preparing him for that first extended time away so he would feel more secure. And ……success! He loved camp, made new friends, and couldn’t wait to go back again and again and again. If only I’d read the research on homesickness the first time I sent him, but the studies on how parents can prevent homesickness hadn’t been published. Well, finally child development researchers have discovered what we parents can do to help our kids feel more confident away from home sweet home. And just in time. Summer is usually the time when we send our kids to stay at Grandmas, with their friends, or off to camp. So if you’re getting ready to send your child away from for just the night or for a more extended time, here are some research-based pointers to help your child–and you–have a fun time and great memories.
Be sure your kid is ready
Is your child sleeping in her own bed through the night or is she climbing in with you at two o’clock in the morning? Does she have any problems separating from you when she goes to school, the baby-sitters, or day care? Does your child get along with this kid well enough to spend a whole night together? Does she feel comfortable with the child’s parents? If not, forget sending her away to that pricey two-week camp. Chances are she won’t make it through day one.
A survey conducted by Sesame Street found that most parents say children are old enough to spend the night at around the age of seven. Do keep in mind that the age is not set in stone: it all depends on the child and you are the one who knows your child best.
Do a practice run
For a reluctant child, have the first sleepover be at your home. It sometimes helps if your child uses the same “security items” (for a real sleepover at your home first. Or try having your child spend the night with Grandma and Grandpa or a special cousin.
Find a buddy
Any buddy!!! Research says kids always feel more secure away from home if they know at least one other child. It could be a child she knows from her hometown (and she doesn’t have to be best friends with the kid), or ask the camp counselor to give you an email address or phone number of a similar-aged child as yours. Maybe they can connect before you drop her off.
Pack a few “security items”
A few packed items can make even the most anxious kid more comfortable. For instance: a flashlight if she fears the dark or staying in a strange house; a granola bar or sandwich (in case they “hate” the meal); a sleeping bag with a rubber sheet tucked inside might help a bed wetter feel more comfortable just in case he has an accident; their own pillow or blanket; even a cell phone for reassurance that she can call you anytime if really needed. Think of what might make your child feel safer. Better yet, have your child think up what he needs to feel more at home.
Meet the counselors or parents
No matter how old your child is, do meet the camp counselors or parents face to face. You want to be sure they will be supervising the whole night, have your phone number handy, and clarify that if there are any problems you want to be called.
“Show off” the cool activities
Other than finding one buddy to “hang with” the next thing researchers say what alleviates homesickness is involvement in an activity (tennis, crafts, kayaking, swimming, beading…anything). If you can get your child excited about one activity he will be more likely to feel a little more comfortable. And he’ll have something to look forward to doing.
Have a positive send-off
Be cheerful and optimistic as you pack and get ready to go. Do wait until your child looks settled. Give her a big hug and kiss. Then leave. But researchers stress to curb homesickness: “Do not linger.”
Breathe when the phone call comes
Homesickness is normal. It is far more prevalent with younger kids and those who have never been away from home. It is also common with college-aged kids. So don’t go thinking your child is not adjusted if you get that “MOMM!!! I hate it here!” call. Instead, listen. Just listen. Telling her to get over it, or it will get better, doesn’t seem to work (says the research again). Don’t promise you’ll call her 50 times a day either. Bad move again say researchers. You can tell her to call again tomorrow. Listen to the tone in her voice. Talk to the camp counselor (without her knowing). And then make your decision (can she wait it out – or it is better to pick her up) based on your child.
So what if your kid doesn’t make it all through the night? If you want this to work in the long run, emphasize the positive accomplishment.“You stayed there two hours past your bedtime. That was much longer than last time.” “It’s not a big deal. You’ll have lots of opportunities to spend the night at friends’ houses again.” There’s always next year!
Tips to Help Kids Be Away from Home With Confidence
Whenever your child is invited to be an overnight guest at someone’s house, you’ll to find out the answers to these questions to make sure he feels comfortable about being there.
- Time frame. What time should I arrive and when will I be leaving?
- Supplies. What should I bring? Should I bring my own sleeping bag? Do I need any special clothing?
- Other kids. Will there be other kids staying over night? If so, who? What adults will be around?
- Activities. What will we be doing? Is there a plan?
- Eating. What will we do for food? Should I eat before I come over or will there be dinner, snacks, breakfast?
- Special concerns. Do you have any pets? Where does the dog sleep? Is anyone else a vegetarian?
Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books. You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news about child development