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Summer Camp: Is it right for your child? Q&A with Dr. Aaron Krasner

Silver Hill Hospital

What are the benefits of sending your son or daughter to camp?
Summer camp is a wonderful opportunity to experience a trial separation from the nest – it gives kids a chance to grow their independence under supervision, develop mastery in areas that interest them, and experiment with developing their own ideas and approaches to socializing outside their customary context.  If we think of home as a secure base – just like we think of moms as secure bases for infants – camp allows kids to experiment with exploring their environment and learning about themselves and their world.

How do they grow from the experience?
Personal growth is measured in inches, not miles. When kids and adolescents gain mastery and confidence outside of their comfort zone, it expands their coping repertoire in managing frustrations and disappointments in their “real lives.” Camp, at its best, not only allows for this kind of exploratory growth, but provides kids with the positive nurturing experiences that bolster self-esteem and enhance an inner sense of wellbeing.

What if your child doesn’t want to go – should you force them to go?
Even if you want to force a child or adolescent to do something, they find a way to undo it. A forceful parental stance toward camp endangers the goals of camp: fun, mastery, and independence. If they don’t want to go, find an alternative to sleep away camp that is acceptable to them – that way you gain some of the benefits, while respecting your child’s feelings.

How can you reassure your child if they are nervous about going to camp?  
Separations are difficult for kids, especially for kids with psychological vulnerabilities, and separations are also hard for parents who have grown accustomed to the loving routines that our secure bases provide not just for the children but for the parents. What worried kids require in successfully separating and getting off to camp is the knowledge that their home base is not going anywhere and that Mom and Dad are just a phone call away.

Most kids are a little nervous about being away from home, but what signs suggest a deeper issue, such as an anxiety disorder?
Previous experiences with separation anxiety are a good indication that children or adolescents will show signs of stress when asked to separate from their parents. If adjusting to Kindergarten or pre-K was tough for your child, you can imagine that their first sleep away camp experience will also be tough. When powerful and confusing uncertainty sets in for a child about attending camp, that’s a clue that there may be an underlying anxiety condition that may require treatment.  This might look like agreeing one day to go and the next day tearfully recanting, refusing to go.  Under those circumstances – as well as a general sense that your child is irritable, fearful, among other symptoms – it is suggested that parents seek psychological or psychiatric consultation.

What if the child has mental illness and wants to go to camp?
My patients thrive at camp. They revel in the independence, the mastery they achieve, and the enduring relationships they form with peers. Ongoing care at camp may require coordination with the camp nurse to administer medications, check-ins with their therapist, and sometimes a break from camp to return home to see their providers and or to break up the camp experience with some consoling home time.  Infrequently, campers will develop anxiety or depression while at camp or patients with known conditions may experience exacerbations, and this is handled on a case by case basis and most camps have the appropriate infrastructure to ensure that this happens in a discreet and supportive manner. If your child is being treated – either in therapy and/or with medications – for a psychiatric condition, I encourage you to be direct with the camps and ensure that they are aware and able to manage any (unlikely) emergent circumstances.