When I was growing up, one of the best parts of summer was summer camp. I’d anticipate my week (sometimes two) for months in advance, mark down the days on my calendar, and get heady with excitement when it came time to shop for the supplies list. But my son is a different kid than I was.
Where I was buzzing with excitement at just the prospect of camp, my son Javier is wracked with anxiety. Where I talked non-stop and flitted from one packing project to another, he has emotional meltdowns and physical tantrums that increase in intensity and duration as camp gets closer.
That’s ADHD. More than just hyperactivity and distractibilty, ADHD affects how children process and react to stressful situations. For Javier, leaving the comfort and security of home is highly stressful and — thanks to ADHD — his coping skills are non-existent.
But despite the meltdowns, I send him to camp. Every summer. I am not a mean parent who forces her child to go somewhere he doesn’t want to go. Quite the contrary, actually. Javi loves being at camp. Three summers ago, when he got off the bus after his first week away, his first words were, “When can I go back?” He wrote a letter that trip that said simply, “You were right, Mom. This is fun! Gotta go. I’m playing spoons with my friends!”
It’s not being at camp that’s the problem. It’s the leaving.
The rounding up of supplies, the packing, and the uncertainty of where he’ll sit on the bus and who will be in his cabin. The worry that he won’t have some crucial item he needs or that he’s forgotten something. The crushing anxiety that something will go wrong, that things will change for the worse, that nothing will be the same when he returns. The hard-wired inability to process these emotions and stop worrying.
So in the face of the days-long trauma I see him undergo even when he’s just attending a day camp, we’ve developed an arsenal of skills that help ease his worries. These strategies are extremely helpful for children with disorders like my Javier’s, but they’re also useful for that first-time camper or the one who is sleeping away for the first time.
1. Involve your child in the process. There are many camp opportunities. In my rural area, we have more than 20 to choose from — from one-day camps to weeks away from home. As a novice camper mom, I used to schedule him for as many as we could afford. Big mistake. Now, I sit down with him and ask him which he thinks are interesting.
I don’t ask him which he’d enjoy because he’d tell me none. He likes to be here with the family and he’s anxious of change, so I don’t fall into that trap. Picking out what he thinks is interesting shows me where he’d go if he were a kid who’d admit that kind of thing. Then I choose one per month. That’s all. Three camps out of 20. As he gets older, maybe we’ll move to four — maybe not.
2. Remind your child how much fun camp is. Often, children focus on what may be rather than what is. If they start to venture down the “no one’s going to like me” path, steer them toward more positive talk. Bring up their favorite memories to help them focus on what they know rather than what they don’t.
For instance, starting a few weeks before camp, I start reminding my son about all the fun things he did last year at camp. “Tell me again about the archery course,” I’ll prompt, knowing that he excelled at archery. Or, “don’t you hope they play the Cha Cha Slide at the dance?” I’ll say with a smile, knowing that’s his favorite song to dance to.
3. Be gentle with your child’s time. Many parents have the tendency to overschedule their children. I’ve found that children respond to transition and stress better when they have the time and space to think and feel. That means no swimming lessons or long days of errand running or friends spending the night.
Quiet days leading up to camp. Quiet, introspective activities that allow your child to stay calm, which allows his brain to work. For us, it’s days of drawing, taking hikes, watching birds. For you, it might be swimming at dusk, a family bike ride, or puzzles. The point is to not add more stress onto your already-stressed-out child. If you can’t do it all day, carve out some time each evening.
4. Prepare for the worst. Sounds like I’ve been spending too much time with Javi, but this really works for me. I expect him to have major meltdowns, to throw things, to storm away, to refuse to get in the car. Because I expect it, I’m prepared with the tools I’ll need most: patience and compassion. When his face goes dark, I take a deep breath. The storm may pass, and it may not, but I’m prepared because I expected it.
I’ve given up on seeing my kid off to camp with a big smile on his face. I’ve given up on the dream that he’ll want to help shop for supplies or tell others how cool it is that he gets to go. I’ve given up on the anger or frustration that I’ve done all of this work for him to have a cool summer experience. Those are things that are about me — not him. And I laid them down a long time ago.
Here’s what I’ve gotten in return: A much smoother send off process. A kid who loves every minute of camp once he realizes the world won’t end while he’s gone. A camper who returns to me with the biggest smile on his face, days’ worth of great summer camp memories, and a crumpled piece of paper with new friends’ names and addresses. Oh, and a boy who plays a mean game of spoons.
Believe me. It’s so worth it.