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The Long Goodbye

by Jay Jacob Hornick
Summer camp can be a blast, but getting there can mean navigating some tearful farewells. Local parents and experts say laying the groundwork is key to stemming separation anxiety.

Inspired by her own fond memories of overnight camp—campfire sing-alongs, color wars and bunk living—Cherry Hill mother Tami Bloom knew she wanted her children to have that same experience. Still, Bloom recalls, sending her oldest son off for his first summer away from home four years ago ranked among the hardest rites of passage in parenting to date.

Although Bloom believed her independent-minded then-8-year-old was emotionally ready and well prepared, she worried about how Ethan would react to being away from the family for an entire month. So, she included him in the process of selecting a camp, and joined him in watching videos showing all aspects of camp life, and discussing what he could expect at Camp Harlem in the Poconos. She packed his trunk with favorite family photos and comforting blankets, and timed her first care package filled with goodies to arrive at camp the same day he did.

Although the parting was tearful, (particularly for mom), all that groundwork paid off. “I really believe he didn’t think about missing us until we picked him up four weeks later,” says Bloom, who is now prepping her middle son, Sam, to join Ethan at camp this summer.

It’s natural for novices to be nervous about leaving home, with its creature comforts and neighborhood friends. Yet the benefits of camp—which include experiencing independence and self-discovery, and building new relationships in a supportive environment cut off from cell phones, Wii and other high-tech distractions—are worthwhile, Bloom says.

Whether a child is signed up for overnight camp or day camp, instinctive separation anxiety and a touch of homesickness are natural, experts say. Careful preparation is key to helping kids adapt to the newness of the situation. While homesickness typically wears off in a day or two, a small percentage of children may experience more severe anxiety that lasts for a longer period of time, a condition know as separation anxiety disorder, says Dr. Andres Pumariega, chief of psychiatry at Cooper University Hospital.

“We see it a lot less frequently, because kids nowadays just have more experience being away from their parents. It’s more of a normative part of growing up,” explains Pumariega, who specializes in treating children with excessive anxiety related to being away from home or a caretaker.

While most kids overcome their homesickness as they start making friends and get into the swing of the camp routine, children who are excessively shy, prone to depression or who have some preexisting anxiety disorder, may have more severe reactions, Pumariega notes. Sometimes, a child who previously had no trouble with separation will become more anxious following a traumatic experience, such as a car crash or a house fire. “It may really be that they fear something bad happening again,” says Pumariega.

But rather than succumbing to that anxiety, he in fact often recommends camp as a way for children to overcome their fear of separation.

Fortunately, there’s plenty parents can do to prepare, Pumariega says. He suggests allocating time for a child to spend away from home, starting with short playdates and building up to sleepovers. If the child can’t handle a whole night away at first, pick him or her up and try again another time.

“It gives them the message that, ‘Yes, you can handle time away from the family and it all works out in the end,’” he says.

Parents can send children to camp with family photos and so-called transitional objects, such as a sentimental blanket, for comfort. In preparing the child for camp, parents should also assure them that they can go to a counselor or another trusted adult for comfort.

While most kids are too busy to miss home during the day, homesickness may catch up to them at night, says Pumariega.

Although most camps do not en­courage parental contact, they typically understand when a child experiencing separation anxiety would benefit from a short call or visit. Sometimes just know­ing that a phone call to home is a possibility is enough reassurance for a child. And if the child doesn’t end up needing to make the call, it gives him or her a sense of mastery, Pumariega says.

Parents sending their children off to day camp for the first time can follow similar approaches. At Tall Pines Day Camp in Williams­town, children as young as 3 can partake in a full day of camp, starting with an 8:30 a.m. pickup and returning home at 4:30 p.m. But, notes camp co-owner and director Andrew Yankowitz, many camp practices are designed to put both camper and parent at ease. Preparation begins in May, when all new campers are asked to attend the annual “Spring Fling,” a three-hour fun event in which camp facilities, including boating, inflatables and rock climbing, are open for use. Campers learn their bunk assignments, meet new bunkmates and reconnect with old friends and counselors.

“It’s really important that they have that familiarity with the camp and they get excited about where they’re going,” says Yankowitz.

During the week before camp starts, both counselors and van drivers will call to introduce themselves to families. Yankowitz personally calls parents on their children’s first day of camp to let them know the activities of the day and that their children are having fun.

“It really puts nervous parents at ease,” he says. Most years, all but one or two children make it through the first day of camp without any tears.

While much of what Bloom will do to prepare her second son Sam, 10, for his first overnight adventure will be a repeat of what she did for Ethan, there will be differences, she says. While Ethan makes friends easily, particularly when sports are involved, Sam is quieter, clingier and more cerebral. Packing will be a more involved process, as Sam is more particular about his things. Drop off could be more painful as well, Bloom anticipates.

Still, a two-day trial offered to newcomers to experience camp went incredibly well. Although Sam didn’t know anyone who was attending, he met some boys who seemed to have similar interests. He left the camp excited for his first foray.

“I’m probably more anxious about it than he is,” admits Bloom. “But I’m starting to prepare myself.”

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 3 (May, 2011).
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