June 5, 2017

Getting Parents Ready for Camp

Parenting news these days is about how to get your kids ready for camp, how to know if they’re ready, and what to pack. You know that already. But how about getting parents ready for camp?

We all understand that sending a child to camp is a huge developmental challenge for them. Leaving home for the first time to go away without their family calls on them to grow and stretch, to tolerate sadness and make it through the homesick blues. We know that’s normal. We’re psych-savvy so we know to normalize homesickness and tell them it happens to most new campers (and some not-so-new) and they’ll get through it.

But who does that for us? The bad news is that my kids are 31 and 28 and I still get worried and kid-sick when they’re far away. The good news is that I always know that this too shall pass.

It is inherent for parents to worry when we give over our children into the hands of others for many days (and nights!!) on end. This is in our DNA. It kicked in when our kids were born and it never goes away. Mama and Papa Bear are alive and stalking. They are us. And they get hellishly provoked when send our kids to camp. We can’t help worrying when our kids go off the reservation, beyond our control.

This is not the interesting part. The interesting (and important) question is what we do in response to these out-of-control feelings. Our first impulse is to share them, because we’re an over-sharing generation. Sharing them with our kids can be direct, but is more likely indirect. Probably you know enough not to share any of your own unpleasant summer camp experiences with your kids…like your horrible homesickness… or how cold the lake was… or the bad counsellor… or the awful cabin-mate(s).

The more confusing over-sharing is the over-identification we all do with our kids. You’ll know you’re over-identifying if you hear yourself saying the words :”We’re going to camp…. this summer”. You’ll also know it if when your child expresses trepidation about going to camp, you start to get uptight.

The trick here (and I’m not saying it’s easy) is to work to separate your child’s feelings from your own. As a parent, I find that affirmations help a lot. Cheesy but true. It goes like this: My 31-year-old-daughter leaves my house after dark on her bike, and I get scared. My impulse is to ask if she has her lights and her flourescent vest, and tell her to call me when she gets home. When I’m good, I take a deep breath (This part is important) and use an affirmation: I say to myself: “She is going to be fine. This is my fear talking. It’s not helpful.” And then I tell her I love her and kiss her goodbye.

Transpose that into your child talking about camp fears. Kids are super-smart. They can tell when they express a fear and we share it, even silently. So buck up and work on deciding to believe that your child will be fine at camp. You chose the camp carefully. You trust the directors to get it mostly right. Key word, mostly.

There will be skinned knees and bruised egos at summer camp, just like in  the real world. This is not preventable, and nor is it desirable to prevent. Because of the blessings of the skinned knee. Which will send you home a child who is more resilient.

So your job is to communicate to your child that you have 100% confidence that they can manage at camp, even when there are challnges. This message will infect them with confidence. Believing in their competence matters enormously. If you step in too much, it telegraphs that you don’t have faith in their ability to manage.

What can you do with your worries? Don’t bury them; that’s not usually helpful. Talk to other parents going through the same thing. Seek adult support. That will help avoid leaking worry to your camper.

Also what’s going to happen to you when they’re gone?  That’s harder. If your life up till now has been focussed almost entirely on this child who is now leaving you, it’s time to attend to you. Because summer camp is a rehearsal for when they leave for university. It’s also a rehearsal for when the storms of adolescence cause them to separate from you. Usually not tidily or pleasantly.

None of this is easy. The emotional umbilical cord lives forever our hearts.

We know how to get our kids ready for camp... How about us?
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