Q: My daughter is leaving soon for her first overnight camp. She seems happy to be going, but I’m a nervous wreck. How can I handle this as well as she is?
A: Well, I’ve certainly been where you are. My oldest daughter went to her first overnight camp when she was 13, and I spent the week worried she’d have an allergic reaction that required someone to stab her with an EpiPen. Everything worked out fine, but what you’re feeling is more common than you might think.
It’s normal to feel anxious when your kids are going to their first overnight camps. It’s symbolic – the kids are getting older, and just yesterday weren’t they toddlers who would never, ever leave you, and now they’re suddenly going to a place where strangers will take care of them? How did that happen so fast? Who’s going to tuck the kids into bed? The better question, though, might be who will the parents get to tuck in at night?
There are kids who aren’t ready for camp yet, and in those cases, taking it slow is definitely the way to go. But anxiety about camp sometimes comes from the parents, even if they mean well; kids who show anxiety about camp are often mirroring anxiety exhibited by their parents.
To make sure that your daughter is ready for camp, make a list of specific things that you’re worried about, and then go through the list and evaluate each worry one by one. Ask yourself if the event you’re worried about is likely to happen; how your daughter might handle it; and if the staff is trained to deal with it. Ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen if your worry comes to pass? Then ask yourself the most important question: What’s your hunch about whether your daughter is ready for camp? You know her better than anyone else does; you can trust your hunch. (If you’ve already agreed to let her go, you probably know that answer already.)
Overnight camp is like any other rite of passage for your kids. As parents, we don’t always want them to be old enough to make a developmental leap, but we work through it because we know it’s good for them. It’s the same as dropping the kids off at kindergarten and driving away while they cry in the doorway, and it’s the same as dropping the kids off at college and driving away while you’re crying in the car. These milestones are part of growing up, and like it or not, good parents let their children have these experiences because they help the kids grow into smart, confident, competent adults.
While your daughter is gone, it might help to distract yourself. Spend some quality time with your spouse or significant other. Work on a project that you haven’t had time to finish. Take a vacation of your own, or spend some “me time” relaxing, reading, and recharging. Some nervous parents even drop their kids off and then camp at a park nearby “just in case.” (While that doesn’t project a lot of confidence, it does let kids go to camp without interference, and you don’t have to tell your kids that you’re nearby.)
Trust me, I understand how hard it can be when your kids hit a milestone like this. I occasionally tell my college-aged kids that they should still be five years old. (They just laugh at me.) But I know that’s not realistic; it’s a child’s job to grow up and leave no matter how much his parents want him to stay, and events like overnight camp are part of the developmental process.
Don’t worry, though. You’ve got awhile before your daughter asks for a deposit for her first apartment. And some kids even come back to live in your basement, but that’s another blog entirely …
(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. Carl is a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. If you’re interested in an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)