What’s in your Suitcase?: Five Tips to Help Prepare Children for Camp (& any transition!)

As the days get longer and our children become antsier it means only one thing – summer is approaching and camp is around the corner! Excitement awaits, but we also know it can be accompanied by nervousness – whether it’s articulated or not. So as you get out the backpacks and duffle bags, I’d like to offer some packing tips to help your child have a successful camp experience. And note — these tips are applicable to all transitions that we help our children (no matter how old!) navigate.

  1. Get organized together! In this case, organization equates to three things:

Make a checklist. Think through, with your child, what might need to be purchased or borrowed in order to cross off all the essentials. Feeling equipped and prepared will boost your camper’s confidence. 

If items need to be purchased – go shopping together. This can be a sweet time of bonding and enable your kiddo to get excited as they visualize a bit of their day-to-day experience and all the fun ahead. 

Pack alongside them (not for them!), empowering them to choose specifics, and talking with them about actually using the items they are packing! For example, when you are both going through toiletries, talk about the idea of putting sunscreen on each morning before they leave the cabin, flossing their teeth every night, etc. When children are a part of the decision-making process, they feel empowered and are more likely to have a positive experience!

2. Talk through expectations. I love New York Timesbestselling author Susan Cain’s story about her first sleep away camp experience. Raised in a book-reading family of introverts, she packed a suitcase full of books, eagerly anticipating the silent reading time that would take place with her cabinmates. Imagine her surprise when cabin time meant memorizing rambunctious chants rather than reading! 

It behooves us to talk with our kids about their expectations of camp. By doing so, we can gently correct any misguided assumptions and help them articulate concerns or set goals. Additionally, when we make time to talk with our children about their expectations, we better equip and prepare them psychologically as well as help to prevent disappointment, frustration and anger as a result of unmet hopes and expectations. 

3. Anticipatory Guidance– do it! Anticipatory guidance may not be a term with which you are familiar, but essentially, it’s all about the mental prep work we can do ahead of an actual situation, so that when time comes, we are more mentally and emotionally prepared for the event. For example, sporadically and casually talking to your campers about the potentially challenging “what if” situations: What if you don’t get any of the activities you hoped for?  What if your counselor isn’t your favorite person? What if your bunk make repeatedly teases you? What if you get sick? 

Having these conversations beforehand will not only better prepare your child for camp, but it will also normalize their feelings when they occur and increase their coping strategies. 

Quick tip: when talking through the “what if’s”, let your child take the lead in answering the questions. Then, after validating their emotions and ideas, offer additional problem solving strategies and talk through those. Additionally, remind your child of ways they have navigated difficult situations in the past as this not only communicates your belief in them but boosts their own confidence.

4. Prepare for Homesickness. Speaking of anticipatory guidance, homesickness is a great one to briefly talk through with your child. Many kids feel a twinge of homesickness at some point during their camp experience so when you are talking through the “what if’s” be sure to bring up this one if your child does not. And normalize, normalize, normalize—meaning let them know it is completely normal and expected to have these feelings. Don’t jump to reassurance or “fix it” mode right away; this is actually dismissive of their feelings! In other words, do notrespond with “Oh, you’ll be just fine” or “You’re going to love every minute of camp.” Validate their emotions, empathize with them, and then remind them that homesick feelings are temporary and talk through what they can do if they feel homesick (i.e. engage in positive self talk such as “I am safe even though I am someplace different”; find a trusted counselor to talk with; write a letter home; pray). 

5. Keep the lines of communication open! We want to create cultures of communication in our homes where our kids know they can talk with us about anything, including their worries and fears. One of the best ways to do this is to listen, listen, and listen some more. Our brains literally settle down when we feel understood! So in the days leading up to camp, make sure to slow down and spend time listening to your camper; simply paraphrasing what you hear them saying is a powerful tool and will lead to deeper conversation and dialogue. 

As a psychologist who has worked with children, adolescents, couples, and families for more than two decades—I can’t help but also include a couple of quick “don’ts” to be mindful of:

  1. Don’t keep talking about how much you are going to miss them.
  2. Avoid a long, tearful goodbye on Incoming Day. Offer smiles and boosts of confidence instead of your tears and strong emotions.  
  3. Don’t send letters that speak about how lonely you are, how quiet the house is, or (on the other end) how you are going to Disneyland without them.
  4. Don’t offer an escape plan; in other words, do notpromise you’ll come and pick them up if things are hard. That actually undermines your child and sends the message that you don’t believe they are capable of working through challenges and overcoming hard things. 

So there you have it – some do’s and don’ts as we pack alongside our children and prepare them for the journey ahead.