It was late in the evening on his first-ever night at summer camp when my son decided he’d had enough.
I remember I was just about to doze off when I heard footsteps and the unmistakable sound of kids whispering because they knew they were breaking curfew. When I stuck my head out of my tent, I was not surprised in the least to see my own kid, flanked by two of his loyal friends who weren’t about to let him wander around camp without a buddy (or, in this case, two buddies).
They were fine. He wasn’t.
“Dad, I want to go home.”
We’ve all been there. Anybody of any age can feel out of sorts away from home.
In this case, we were just a few months removed from my son and I sharing a tent at our last ever Arrow of Light weekend campout. The young man had attended one — maybe two — Scouts BSA campouts in the spring, during which he shared a tent with a fellow youth. But that had been a short weekend, not what probably seemed to him like a week at summer camp that would never end.
“OK, bud,” I said. “Let’s try this: Go back to your tent, get some rest and we’ll see how you feel in the morning.”
It didn’t work.
Homesickness: It happens
After a few minutes of back and forth — with me spending the whole time trying my best to not lose my patience — another adult gently but firmly reminded the boys that they were out after curfew and needed to go back to their tents.
Lots of kids (and maybe a few adults) will experience some symptoms of homesickness during campouts. Identifying and addressing it appropriately will go a long way toward making camp the wonderful experience it should be.
A child who’s experiencing homesickness might seem quiet, anxious or even mildly depressed. They might complain that they feel physically ill. “My stomach hurts” was a common complaint that first night at our camp from more than one Scout, and it had nothing to do with the food.
It makes total sense that younger kids are the ones likely to be affected. They’re the ones who might have never spent an entire week away from home. They have less camping experience in general. They feel they have little control over their situation.
How to Use Pre-Camp Discussions to Help Prevent Homesickness
Step 1. Start thinking about your approach months in advance. As a parent or leader, how you approach summer camp in the months leading up to it can go a long way toward reducing the likelihood that the child will experience homesickness.
Step 2. If you’re the one feeling anxiety, it’s best to keep that discussion between fellow caregivers and the adults who are going with the unit for camp. When it comes to your child, it’s best to address any fears head-on while also expressing confidence that the child can handle it.
Step 3. Talk with your child about their specific concerns. Are they worried about being bullied? Make sure they’re empowered to handle that situation should it arise. Are they worried about being alone? Make sure they know that they’re part of a larger group with trusted adults who will make sure everyone is safe. Are they worried about taking showers? Brushing their teeth? Having enough time to eat? Assure them that time for all of that is built into their schedule.
Step 4. Tell them how proud you are that they’re going off to experience summer camp, one of the most memorable experiences of everyone’s childhood.
Preventing Homesickness Once Camp Has Started
Step 1. Review the schedule for the week with the entire group, leaving out no details. “We’re going to wake up at X:XX a.m. We’re going to eat breakfast at X:XX a.m. Your first merit badge class is at X:XX a.m.”
Step 2. Make sure every child is supported. Nobody likes being lonely, so make sure every kid is supported by their fellow youth. It might be helpful for an older Scout to tell a story about their first time at camp and how they themselves dealt with homesickness.
Step 3. As the week goes on, continue to provide engaged supervision. That means paying attention to every child, observing their body language and the way they interact with other kids.
Step 4. Nighttime is a common time to feel homesick, so it’s a good idea to remind them of all the fun they had that day, and all the fun they’re going to have in the days that follow.
Step 5. Most of all, be patient. Encourage kids to talk about their feelings — if not with an adult, then with other kids. Sometimes just saying it out loud can make them feel better.
Stay engaged and follow up regularly.
The next morning, at breakfast, my son came to my table and politely asked if he could eat my leftover French toast. He didn’t seem like the same kid who had come to my tent the night before.
Throughout the day, I observed him going from class to class, working on requirements for his First Aid, Swimming and Camping merit badges. I chose not to initiate any conversation with him, but to instead wait for him to come to me.
For a while, it looked like that would never happen.
In his free time, he played gaga ball with some Scouts from another unit whom he had just met a few hours earlier.
“I’m having fun, Dad,” he finally said to me very casually, as if it was no big deal.
I watched as he walked with his friends to their next class, seeming to realize that maybe this summer camp thing isn’t so bad after all.