By Sandy Eller –
I can remember it like it was yesterday, though truth be told, it happened decades ago.
I was 7 1/2 years old and in sleepaway camp for the first time when I woke up one Shabbos morning with a vision of what things probably looked like at home with all three of us off in camp. There was a bottle of wine, a white embroidered cloth covering a tiny challah, and just two forlorn glasses set out, instead of the usual five. While that image was likely a picture that had been embedded in my head by a Manischewitz wine advertisement, it started a fresh round of tears anew, the first of bucketfuls I probably shed that summer as I imagined that lonely, kidless Shabbos. For that summer and quite a few more that followed, my poor sister was stuck dealing with endless bouts of crying as I counted down the days until I would finally be set free and allowed to go back home.
Whether you are dealing with sending a child away for a sleepover, summer camp, a year in Israel or a young adult going off to college, homesickness can be tough to deal with. An adjustment disorder whose symptoms can include anxiety, sadness and nervousness, as described by CNN, homesickness can leave some kids obsessing over thoughts of home and loved ones, while others may find themselves preoccupied with what teens often refer to as FOMO, fear of missing out, as life back home goes on without them. While it is tempting to put on your superhero cape and bail your child out when that tearful SOS comes your way, helping a kid triumph over homesickness is a valuable skill that can offer a lifetime of benefits.
Passaic resident Moshe Stareshefsky recalled how as a child, he would often attempt sleepovers at friends’ houses, but would end up calling his parents to take him home. At age 14, he decided that it was time to face the issue head-on and he went on a five day ski trip to Montreal, knowing that there was no way his parents could pick him up ahead of schedule. Faced with no other alternative, he learned to ski on his first day and was doing black diamond runs the next. He described the ski trip as an amazing experience and recalled how he was too busy having fun to even think about missing anyone or anything back home.
“Homesickness only exists if you have a way out,” the 36-year-old father of two told Monsey.com. “If not, and your parents can’t help you out of a situation, you don’t have a choice but to work through it.”
Having gotten past his homesickness, Stareshefsky went on to spend the next four summers in sleepaway camp, an experience he wholeheartedly enjoyed.
Parents need to walk a fine line when preparing their child for sleepaway camp and the possibility of homesickness. On the one hand, you want to equip your kids with the tools to diffuse those feelings of sadness when they rear their ugly heads. On the other hand, you don’t want homesickness to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because many children get through a summer in camp with no issues at all.
Debbie Cohen* of Wesley Hills knew she had an uphill road to climb when it came to sending her daughter Malky off to seminary. During her first summer in sleepaway camp, at age 10, Malky was so homesick that at first she couldn’t keep any food down.Thankfully, she managed to get past her anxiety and was ultimately named camper of the month. After one more year of camping, Malky decided that she would prefer to spend her summers at home, leaving Mrs. Cohen understandably nervous about sending her daughter for a year in Israel. Unwilling to let Malky miss out on what she knew would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Mrs. Cohen got to work preparing her daughter for her year in Israel, sending her to an overnight travel camp the summer before 12th grade and encouraging her to discuss strategies for dealing with homesickness with her school’s life coach during her senior year. When the time came for Malky to board her flight to Ben Gurion, she had already amassed a toolbox of coping mechanisms that would help her through the inevitable rough spots and she got through the year with flying colors.
“We did a lot of research and reading and a lot of positive thinking so that she was prepared for homesickness when it hit,” said Mrs. Cohen. “She knew that there would be times when it would be hard and when that happened she was ready to deal with it. Ironically, she had friends who thought the year would be easy for them and when they were feeling down, she was the one who helped them out.”
How to equip your kids to deal with homesickness?
First and foremost, let them know that homesickness is a normal part of camp for most kids, although it affects some more than others. It is important that they understand that the fact that they are homesick doesn’t mean that they aren’t cut out for camp. Even kids who are having an amazing time can sometimes feel a sense of longing, which will likely pass when they get busy.
Make sure that your kid has proper coping skills. If they get overwhelmed by the thought of being away for a whole month, suggest that they take things in bite-sized pieces, going one day at a time, which is much less intimidating. Also, remind your kids that the busier they are, the less time they will have to be melancholy, so encourage them to make friends, get involved in activities and do whatever they can to keep their day as full as possible.
Encourage your kids to write home frequently and tell you about their day and be sure that you write often as well. Even in today’s digital age, there is nothing like getting a letter or a package from home. Keep your letters upbeat and enthusiastic, but be careful not to make it sound like the rest of the family is partying 24/7 or your child will want to come home so they don’t miss out on all the fun.
Be sympathetic and understanding without being a marshmallow. Make sure your child knows that you feel for them but that they are in camp for the duration and that coming home early is not an option. A homesick kid who thinks there is a chance of an early escape is never going to fully immerse themselves in the program because they feel like they have one foot out the door.
Last but not least, be realistic. While the vast majority of kids love summer camp, there are those who just don’t enjoy the experience. If your kid stuck it out in camp for a year or two and didn’t enjoy it, then maybe sleepaway camp isn’t for them. But if your child had a good time despite the occasional twinge of homesickness, then by all means encourage them to continue in summer camp, because teaching your kid to persevere and to triumph over their insecurities is possibly one of the best gifts a parent could ever give their child.
Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines and many private clients. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.