June 28, 2005
Separation Anxiety and Camp Homesickness
David Prescott, Ph.D., Acadia Hospital
What to Look For: While summer activities, like camps, are exciting for many children, time away from home brings on new worries for some children and teenagers. Two types of problems that may appear when it is time for day camp or overnight camp are separation anxiety and homesickness.
Separation anxiety is most common in children 5-8 and 11-14. Anxiety about leaving parents or caregivers is common in preschoolers but is considered more developmentally appropriate, and is not typically viewed as a potential problem. While separation anxiety is most commonly seen around going to school, it may occur any time a child is away from home. Symptoms of separation anxiety usually appear before leaving home and include onset of headache, sore throat, or stomach ache; intense worry about the well being of the child or family; shadowing the parent around the house; or refusal to leave the house. These behaviors or complaints usually subside if the child does not leave the home.
Homesickness is familiar to most of us, and is common for children at overnight camps. Parents should feel free to say that feeling homesick quite normal. Typically homesickness involves feeling lonely, feeling like the time away from home is exceedingly long, difficulty sleeping, and not wanting to participate in activities.
How to Help : For both separation anxiety and homesickness, it is important to respect your child’s feelings, while at the same time helping him/her learn to cope in with the problem. Coping with separation anxiety often involves learning new ways to think about a situation. For example, it may help to balance fears with thoughts about friends, activities, or projects which children enjoy at camp. It is probably unrealistic to hope that children with separation anxiety will lose all worries, but changing how they think will reduce the worry. Also, since the anxiety is about leaving home, rather than being at camp, it may help parents to remember that the anxiety usually diminishes once the child is at camp.
For homesickness, again it is important to realize that such feelings are quite common. Short practice separations (such as spending the night at a friend’s or relative’s house) may help children learn how they can cope with a week away from home. Research on how children cope with homesickness shows that thinking more positively, reframing time (for example, breaking time away into smaller chunks), and getting support from friends/counselors are all effective ways to cope with homesickness. Parents can help their children focus on things that they can control (writing letters, trying activities) rather than things they cannot (amount of time away from home, camp routines and schedules).
American Psychological Association (www.apahelpcenter.org) “Summertime Blues”
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (www.aacap.org) “Children Who
Won’t Go to School: Separation Anxiety”