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Help Your Kids Beat Homesickness

Two weeks at overnight camp or Grandma’s house may trigger a flood of tears and fears -- espec...

Leaving home, even for a short while, can create a lot of anxiety for kids -- not to mention their parents. But you can reduce your child’s fears by sending her off with two essential items: a sense of independence and a vote of confidence.

“Kids need opportunities to take care of themselves, and parents have gotten a lot worse at that over the years,” says Bob Ditter, a child and family therapist in Boston, Mass., who consults camps nationwide. A big part of separation anxiety is wondering, “How am I going to be successful?”

To boost your child’s confidence and minimize homesickness, Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association, suggests these six steps:

1. Practice separations throughout the year.
Set up sleepovers at relatives’ and friends’ homes, and use those experiences to build confidence. When it’s time for camp or a trip with another family, remind your child that she’s spent the night away before. She’s already seen that you can go away and then come back.

2. Teach independence.

In addition to creating opportunities for independence, you need to call attention to the small steps your child takes. Tell her you liked the way she handled a conflict or how she approached the salesperson for help. She may not see those moves as accomplishments if you don’t acknowledge them.

3. Involve them in decision-making.

Giving your child choices will help her feel that she has some control over what happens to her while she’s away. Once you’ve set the parameters and made your own short list of camps, let her make the final call. Give her the ability to choose her own activities, and accept what she picks. “You have to be open-minded,” says Smith. “We are not our children, and they aren’t us. It’s part of learning how to make decisions.”

4. Minimize surprises.

Part of homesickness is being unfamiliar with your surroundings, so the more information your child has about logistics, the easier her transition will be. Explain how camp is laid out: where her cabin is located, how the bathroom is set up, how far away the dining hall is. Tell her where she’ll be sleeping in Grandma’s house, what the neighborhood is like and how close the playground is.

5. Avoid making an escape plan.

The minute you tell your child she doesn’t have to stay if she’s unhappy, you’ve prepared her to be unhappy. Instead, if your child calls you weeping and begging to come home, listen to her, but then move past the anxiety: “What did you do that was fun? Is there something you’re doing tomorrow that you’re looking forward to? If you’re still feeling this way next week, we can talk about it.”

6. Don’t wig out.

Severe homesickness is very rare, according to Smith, so the unhappiness you’re hearing probably doesn’t characterize your child’s entire experience. Keep reflecting your confidence that she’ll have a great time, and remind yourself of the goal: to help her learn new skills, build self-esteem, and gain confidence and independence.

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