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You expected your child to make friends at camp, explore the great outdoors, and fill those long summer days with fun. But within a couple days, your child is calling you on the phone, pleading to come home. What do you do?

It's hard for kids and parents to deal with homesickness. No parent wants to see his or her child unhappy, especially so far away from home. But most parents also know that if given time, most kids will happily adjust.

Trying to figure out what's right can be difficult — here are some tips.

When Homesickness Strikes

Homesickness is a type of anxiety that kids sometimes experience when they're away from home. It's very common: One study found that 83% of children who attended sleepaway camp experienced at least mild homesickness. And it's no wonder — separation from a parent or parents is one of the strongest fears that kids have.

Homesickness occurs in kids of all ages and both genders, but it does tend to lessen with age. As kids get older and have more successful stays away from home, they're better able to put their feelings in perspective — and they also learn that missing home doesn't mean they can't enjoy their time away. This type of thinking is much harder for younger kids, especially those who are away for the first time. For them, going to camp or even spending a week with Grandma can be more difficult.

Once away, kids who are homesick tend to feel sad and depressed. They may cry, be unwilling to participate in activities, withdraw from others, find it difficult to sleep, or engage in attention-seeking behavior (for example, getting into trouble).

Some kids may also experience physical symptoms, even though there's nothing medically wrong with them. Common complaints include stomachache, sore throat, headache, nausea, minor aches and pains, or flu-like symptoms.

The Camp Experience

For many kids, attending sleepaway camp is their first real experience with leaving home, and they may greet it with excitement, fear, or a little of both. But other emotional reactions are also common. Younger kids, for example, may view being sent to camp as a type of rejection — especially if they weren't included in the decision to go.

So it's important to find out how kids feel about an impending separation before making a final decision. A child who strongly objects to going to camp just might not be ready, and an alternate plan may be wise.

Helping Kids Cope

Some of the things you can do to ensure a smooth transition should occur well before your child leaves.

For one thing, make sure that your child actually wants to go. Don't send your child just because you think it will be a good way to overcome shyness or because everyone else in the family went to camp at that age. Remember, there's no right age to begin camp (if a child goes at all), and what's right for one kid isn't necessarily right for another.

If your child is ready for camp, you can take steps to prevent homesickness. The American Camping Association (ACA) offers these suggestions:

  • Include kids in the decision of which camp to attend. Look at the brochures together, visit if possible, and talk or meet with other kids who have gone there. Kids who have a say in the decision are more likely to feel a sense of ownership and be happier with the outcome. Plus, you'll learn what your child likes about one camp over another.
  • Discuss expectations for the experience — yours and your child's. Talk about the good reasons for going to camp and what you hope your child will gain from it. It's OK to discuss uncertainties and concerns, but don't focus on the negatives. Always express confidence that your child will do just fine.
  • Encourage your child's independence and have practice separations. These can include spending one night at a friend's house or going to day camp before sleepaway camp. These mini-separations will boost your child's confidence and help ease the transition to being away from home.
  • Discuss topics like set times to call or how often you'll write. Remember that many camps have policies — like no phone calls for the first week — to allow campers time to adjust. Know their rules and discuss them so your child knows what to expect.
  • Together, visit the camp. Kids fear the unknown, especially when it comes to a change in their routine. They might wonder, Where will I sleep? Where will I eat? Where will I go to the bathroom? Visiting lets kids become at least a little familiar with the setting and will show that you're comfortable with it, too.
  • Communicate with the camp. If you think your child may get homesick, let the camp counselors know ahead of time. Most are trained to handle it and are ready to give extra TLC to an unhappy camper.
  • Involve your child in the packing. Let your son or daughter bring a favorite T-shirt or a special stuffed animal. Familiar items make kids more comfortable in the new surroundings.
  • Make departure time cheerful. Set the right tone by talking about the fun that awaits and expressing confidence in your child.
  • Don't bribe or make promises of an early exit if your child doesn't like camp. This can send the message that you don't think your child will be able to handle the separation.
  • Have a care package or note already waiting for your child on the first day, if the camp allows it. This will reassure your child that you care and you're thinking of him or her.
  • Write often, focusing on the positives (making new friends, what the campers are learning and doing, etc.). Avoid dwelling on how much you miss your child or rattling off a list of things going on at home, which could make the separation even harder.
  • Put together a calendar that shows the days at camp, when you plan to visit or call, and when camp ends. A calendar gives kids a better sense of time.

If You Get a "Rescue Call"

Despite this preparation, your child may still become homesick, especially in the first couple days. If you get a teary "rescue call," try not to overreact or feel guilty. Be reassuring and encourage your child to participate — say how excited you are to hear about all the fun things going on at camp. Most important, stay calm and upbeat because kids take their cues from the people they look up to most.

Though it might be difficult, resist the urge to bring your child home early, especially if there are no physical symptoms. Homesickness may worsen when kids have downtime — during early morning, rest hour, and just before bed, for example — and it can be contagious. That's why most camps pack the days with activities — they know that kids who engage in distracting activities and seek social support are generally less homesick. Most cases of homesickness end once kids make a new friend or find an enjoyable activity, so give it a little time.

Consider checking in with a counselor to find out how your child is doing. Camp counselors are used to dealing with homesick kids and their worried parents, and talking with them can probably put your mind at ease.

When to Cut it Short

For most kids, bouts of homesickness are normal and eventually pass. But for a few, homesickness may be severe, causing symptoms of panic and depression. If you find that your child has not been eating or sleeping for an extended period of time or the homesickness interferes with daily activities, talk with the camp counselors about how to help. Familiar routines can alleviate anxiety, so maybe the counselors can provide some foods that your child likes or duplicate aspects of your child's bedtime routine.

If the problems persist and there's talk of sending your child home, consider visiting the camp first. If that helps, say you'll try to visit again. If visiting isn't possible or doesn't help, you may want to bring your child home. When eating, sleeping, and daily activities are disrupted, kids don't benefit from the experience and it's wise to call it a day. No one knows your child as well as you, so trust your instincts.

If the camp stay does end early, acknowledge your child's brave attempt and do not treat the experience as a failure. Instead, discuss whether other camps might be a better fit. For some kids, day camp is just right — and might even make them eager to try sleepaway camp next time.

Homesickness can be tough to deal with, but once those early days are past, many kids find there's a world of adventures to be discovered. Who knows, camp could be so much fun that your child won't want to leave!

Date reviewed: December 2005