As parents we spend months readying our children for sleepaway camp, from finding the right camp to choosing between iron-on tags and Sharpies to mark every last duffle bag-bound item with the child’s name. We anticipate summer camp experiences good and bad, from making new friends and learning new skills to homesickness and pinkeye. What moms and dads are less likely to anticipate is that just as going to camp is a major transition for a child, so, too, is coming home.
With the bulk of campers homeward bound over the next several weeks, it’s worth noting that while many kids who enjoyed stretching their wings will have a relatively smooth reentry to the nest, others will have a bumpier landing.
Dr. Michael G. Thompson, a psychologist and author of Homesick and Happy, says returning children fall into one of three groups. “I think that the majority of kids come home pretty satisfied, more grown up, and very proud of themselves,” he says. These kids try to show off their newfound maturity, setting tables and pitching in on chores, just as they had at camp.
Kids in this first group may have learned to water ski or overcome their fear of bugs but, more importantly, “they conquered a huge developmental piece. They managed without their parents,” says Carolyn Meyer-Wartels, a Manhattan psychotherapist who’s worked with families on after-camp problems. They even had the chance to play with their personas: Maybe they’d be the funny one, or the serious one, at camp. Plus, she says, “there’s a whole new group of friends and adults to rely on.”
But Dr. Thompson says children’s new thoughtfulness doesn’t tend to last too long. “Generally, grown-up behaviors fall away and they return to baseline” in the context of home, he says. “Your mother knew you when you were little and needy. Her presence evokes those feelings in you.”
“There’s usually a brief honeymoon and then a bit of a crash,” Meyer-Wartels agrees. “Camp has a lot of rules but it’s fun, you’re never alone, and the group is doing chores like clearing the table together. But then the child comes home and there are the different rules and expectations of family life.”
This may spark some power struggles—and even a bit of backtalk. “You can speak with your friends in a totally different way than you can speak with adults,” she says.
Thompson describes the second group as the ones who come home and are quite “campsick” for a few days. Missing the friends, the independence, and the routine of camp, they find themselves “flopping about the house, and they don’t want to be home,” he says. This often hurts parents’ feelings. “They’re very glad their child had such a good experience at camp but are a little miffed he’s saying so quite so loudly.” He encourages parents to wait it out and not take it personally: This unhappy transition usually lasts only two to four days.
Along with the sadness at the end of camp may well be the realization that summer is coming to a close and the school year is looming, adds Meyer-Wartels. And if the child is coming home to a stressful family situation, that’s going to show up, too.
She says it’s very common for campsick kids to become obsessed with maintaining their camp friendships, spending large chunks of time online posting photos, chatting, and Skyping. This isn’t necessarily bad; technology can be a blessing for kids who don’t have many—or any—friends at home. They’ve forged strong bonds, perhaps for the first time. Parents can try to arrange play dates and get-togethers, but when this is a geographic impossibility, the Web can be a beautiful thing.
The vocal minority: unhappy campers
Unfortunately, there’s also a small percentage of kids who have had negative camp experiences, from not making friends to serious homesickness. If homesickness was part of the problem, Meyer-Wartels says, younger kids may act clingy and somewhat regressed when they come back, not wanting to leave mom’s side. Anger may lead older kids to give their parents the silent treatment.
Dr. Thompson says this third group may include many with special needs. For those with anxiety disorders like OCD, “camp was just a psychological workout,” he says. They may in fact have had a good time but may think, ‘You put me in a hard situation, mom,’ so they make you pay a little bit.”
We all tend to collapse around the people who love us, he notes. “It’s the regressive pull of home. So you’ll see a 14-year-old functioning at a high level away from home, but when he’s near his mother he’s whinier. He may have had a good time at camp, but make it sound as if it was one of the lower rings of hell from the Inferno.”
Dana, a parent of a 10-year-old with a mild form of autism, says she thinks her son, Billy, had a great time at his special-needs camp. “Those pictures on the web site don’t lie,” she says. “That’s a real Billy smile.” The boy has confirmed to his parents that he loved camp.
But since they returned home from a post-camp vacation, Dana has noticed that Billy’s “trigger is a bit short.” If there’s any transition or he’s asked to do anything he doesn’t want to do, he melts down.
Going on a family vacation directly after picking Billy up from camp might have compounded things. “It was hard for him because he was really homesick,” Dana says. “He really likes our house and wants to be there. Every day, he said ‘I want to go home.'”
Dr. Thompson says anxious kids with OCD tendencies come home and begin a campaign immediately to avoid being sent to camp again next year. “What they’re trying to do is dictate to the parent and regain a sense of control over their lives,” he says. “They are seeking the protection of home for the future.”
What’s a parent to do?
For those kids who return from camp with good feelings, it’s important to notice their confidence. “They come home and they might feel a little like they’ve changed to some degree,” Meyer-Wartels says, “and it’s important we recognize the new things that have emerged in them.
If a child’s homecoming brings with it not just piles of laundry but negative behaviors, she says, it’s key for parents to try to understand what happened at camp. While some kids will talk about it a lot, others will be quiet.
“Parents should look beyond the surface to see what really happened for them at camp, what went on internally, not just what new skills they developed,” Meyer-Wartels says. She says parents need to remember to listen closely to their kids and acknowledge the difficult feelings they are expressing so they feel understood. If a child shows signs of anxiety that persist for several weeks (i.e. sleep disturbances, moodiness, loss of appetite, or not being him or herself), she says, it’s time to consult a professional.
Dr. Thompson urges parents to listen to a child lobbying to not go back to camp, but avoid being pushed into a “never-again” pledge. “Usually,” Dr. Thompson says, “parents give in because they need a break. But once you give in, you can’t go back. You can say, ‘We’ll think about it, we’ll talk about it.'”
Dana reports that Billy says he doesn’t want to go back to camp next year. Basically, he “did it” and doesn’t need to do it again. However, she says, she’d definitely send him again, as well as to day camps with neurotypical kids. For now, though, she’s sticking with “we’ll see.”