How to Deal with Homesickness

This is a problem every campsite has to deal with; even day camps can be required to deal wit homesickness in some form.  Campers are excited and eager to get some independence and take part in all the adventures camps can provide.  During times of high energy campers do fine, but when nighttime or more subdued times come, they start to realize that they are not actually at home.  When the time comes for them to sleep in a strange place or start conversations with all strangers, they can panic.

And this is where homesickness comes in.

Homesickness is quite basically fear.  Fear of a lot of different things; of not being safe, of not fitting in, etc.  Homesickness is a psychological state (Read this Psychology Today article by Steve Baskin  here), but it also has physical symptoms.  Stomach ache and loss of appetite are the two most common.  But because homesickness is psychological, campsites need to focus on mentally and emotionally encouraging campers afflicted by it.

One of the best ways to encourage campers to move past homesickness is to never say the word “Homesick”.

Here’s an example:  Picture a parent with a pre-teen girl.  This girl tends to be a little bit clumsy, tripping over herself at least a couple times a week.  The minute the parent exclaims “you clumsy girl!”, that girl begins to believe she is just that, clumsy.  But if instead, the parent says “don’t worry, I used to have clumsy moments too, you’ll grow into your body soon”, the girl believes she will very soon be no longer clumsy.

Same circumstances, different aspects voiced.

This is the same principle we need for dealing with homesickness.

A genius camp wrote a section about homesickness into their staff manual, and in this section they made the requirement that the term “homesick” could never spoken again on the campsite.  Not once.  Instead, staff were given the code word “IT”.  If they were dealing with campers who had ‘it’, they could share that with others and get help with ‘it’, but they were never allowed to voice ‘it’ in terms of homesickness.  Because of this rule, campers never heard even the possibility that they were homesick, they simply received encouragement to continue each day.

Now, if this principle were left there, this would be a big mistake.  Ignoring homesickness is not helpful; children should be encouraged to express themselves in a loving and caring environment.  But through requiring that the word “homesick” can’t be used, the approach counselors take to helping campers through homesickness looks different.

Instead of allowing counselors to console campers with comments like “oh, I know it’s hard being homesick”, or “you’re not sick, you’re just homesick”, or “I know you miss your parents, and they miss you too, but you won’t be homesick for long”, the nature of the comments necessarily changed.  Counselors became true encouragers.  They asked about what was wrong, specifically.  What do campers miss about home?  Why are they crying?  What would they want to say to their parents if they could?  The valid emotions of their campers couldn’t be swept away as easily, because conselors couldn’t attribute those emotions to a simple case of homesickness.

Instead, counselors congratulated campers on each step towards independence.  They were encouraged through activities, asked about how it felt to stay through the night, and given extra attention where possible..  Because counselors couldn’t voice the term out loud, they couldn’t give pat answers to what was wrong and move on.  They had to deal with it, and they did it well.

As you plan for your summer season, consider ways you can minimize the problem of homesickness on your campsite.  Think about what types of comments are most commonly used by your counselors, and whether you should be tasking them with new language.  See if there are additional ways you can interact throughout the camp days, and even in the days leading up to camp, to help ease your campers into their new setting.

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