Ensure a Happy Summer Camper
It's not just the 6 million American kids heading to summer camp who may have trouble adjusting. It's also their parents.
By Sid Kirchheimer
Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario
Florence Leon first went to overnight camp when she was 12. Through umpteen leathercraft wallets and throat-numbing singalongs until she was a college-aged bunk counselor, she logged only great summer memories and experiences. "Two of my best friends today I met at camp," she says. "And that was 35 years ago."
But what's on her mind as this summer unfolds is how her son, at 12, will sail through his maiden journey into that cherished family tradition. Frankly, admits the Philadelphia social worker, she's worried about Stefan. Not so much about pillow-soaked bouts of homesickness, the probable chance of lost or unwashed underwear, or even the one-in-a-zillion chance that his counselor is a pedophile.
She's concerned about his skin. "What if he gets an infected mosquito bite? Who will make sure he wears sunscreen? When he's at camp, who will do the things I do for him, like make sure his skin is protected? Some teenager I don't know from Adam who has to look after a dozen other kids?"
It will continue through the summer: Some 6 million American youths heading to the nation's 10,000 summer camps, many carrying extra socks, self-addressed postcards, and angst. While fleeting homesickness affects as many as 95% of campers, about one in 11 will likely develop real anxiety disorders caused by these vacations -- along with their parents.
"Separation anxiety is the most common camp-related problem, for both kids and their parents," says psychologist Anne Marie Albano, PhD, of the New York University Child Study Center.
"But many also have social anxiety -- an extreme fear in worrying that people won't like them -- or generalized anxiety in which they worry about catastrophic events. And these problems often come in packages.
"Since we know that anxiety tends to run in families, and children model their behavior in what they see their parents do, when you see kids anxious about attending camp, that often translates to anxious parents of those campers. Sometimes, the parents have it worse. And unfortunately, they show this to their kids."
At Camp Shane, an overnight weight-loss camp in the Catskill Mountains, the staff is prepared to deal with these self-induced or family-fueled camper problems in its 500 attendees.
"Because our campers are overweight, they have a lot of emotional issues -- low self-esteem, lack of friends at home, so there's often a lot riding on their coming here," says camp owner and director David Ettenberg, CCD.
"Our counselors are trained, and we have a guidance staff made up of school counselors, psychologists or social workers to deal with any camper problems, along with a grandmotherly type 'Camp Mom' who goes bunk-to-bunk.
"But in truth, the vast majority of kids are fine. Yes, they miss their parents, but they adjust, make friends, have fun, and can't help but lose weight," he tells WebMD. "It's their parents who I sometimes worry about. Just yesterday, I had one mother who couldn't stop crying as she dropped off her child. And then I got a call from another who already did, worried about homesickness and wanting to come to take him home."
Course for a Happy Camper
What can you do to better ensure everyone in the family is a happy camper?
"When you signed the contract to send your child to camp, there was also an implied contract that you trust they will have fun and be safe," says Albano.
"It's normal to have concerns, but if you are really struggling with these issues, you're sending out contradictory messages that most children will pick up, and likely trigger or contribute to feelings of anxiety. The idea of going to camp may cause you both distress, but it's working through distress that helps us advance."
Published June 30, 2003.
SOURCES: Anne Marie Albano, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry, New York University Child Study Center and New York University School of Medicine. Suzanne Thompson, PhD, pediatric psychologist, St. Louis Children's Hospital. David Ettenberg, CCD, owner and director, Camp Shane, Ferndale, N.Y. Florence Leon, mother of camper, Philadelphia. National Camp Association, Inc.
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