Helpful Strategies for First-Time Camp Families

It’s officially countdown to camp and there are a whole lot of kids and caregivers around the country feeling excited, nervous, and most likely both about attending camp next month. The feelings are likely even more intense after a year in which kids were cooped up due to the quarantine and often feeling isolated. So we thought we’d take this time to walk everyone through what happens on our end to ease the nerves of camper families, and how caregivers can help too.  

Here’s what we do on our part:

A few weeks before camp, we send our caregivers an email letting them know that it’s normal if their young person gets cold feet and we provide strategies (see samples below). We also strongly encourage our caregivers to use the camp week to take care of themselves, whether it’s taking care of tasks that never seem to get done or, better yet, finding ways to pamper themselves (even just quietly sitting in the sun or going for a walk)! Throughout the week, caregivers receive daily updates from our camp staff and photos of their kid(s); seeing those smiling faces is usually when caregivers are able to fully let go. We also share with caregivers what to expect when campers arrive home. Included in this email is a letter that caregivers can share with their child’s teachers, coaches or guidance counselors to help these adults support the child during the school year.

Dr. Dan Wolfson loves working with our first-time campers as a clinician and witnessing them transform!

How caregivers can calm nerves:

Dr. Dan Wolfson, our Clinical Director at Experience Camps in Pennsylvania and psychologist who specializes in grief, has several suggestions for helping first-time campers who may be scared to go to camp. The best thing caregivers can do: try to be reassuring for campers even if they feel a little nervous too.

Says Dan, “Caregivers can help validate children’s feelings if they’re anxious by saying something like, ‘I hear that you’re feeling anxious and that’s normal because you haven’t done this before.’” Then caregivers can show their belief in their child’s abilities by adding, “I’m going to miss you but I’m really excited for you! I know this is going to be an important experience, and I’m proud of you for going.” They can even further boost their children’s confidence by bringing up times when the child(ren) did something nerve-wracking that was successful. They can say, “Hey, remember when you were nervous about [fill-in-blank] and then it ended up going so well?”

Given the circumstances in which campers attend our camps, there may be extra concerns for new campers. They may worry something bad will happen to their caregiver while they are away, given that they have already experienced a death in their family. Dan advises, “We don’t need to lie to our kids; the truth is, caregivers can’t guarantee that nothing bad will ever happen again. They can tell their child that the odds are really, really low and that as a family they’re learning that no matter what happens, they can get through it.” Then caregivers can reiterate that camp is a safe place where kids are going to have fun, and it will be great to hear all about it when their child gets home!

If a child asks whether he/she/they can come home if they get homesick, it can be tempting to say yes. But doing so may reaffirm that the caregiver questions their ability to succeed. What’s more helpful, says Dan, is to say: “I really believe you can do this. If for some reason you were having a terrible time, I would be talking with the staff there to figure out how to support you. But I believe you’re going to have a great time!”

The truth is that the first-time campers are most likely going to have a great time. There is a reason that the huge majority of our campers return year after year for an average of five years! We provide belonging, connection, new coping tools, and plenty of fun! Plus at the end of the week, kids can add this experience to their list of things that made them nervous but which they did anyway and ended up loving.