My daughter is off to camp again this summer. We dread her return.
It's not that her dad and I don't want to see our 12-year-old girl after her four weeks away. But if this homecoming is anything like last year's, it will mean weeks of moodiness, depression and surliness. It's a phenomenon known among experienced camp parents as "campsickness." It's like homesickness, but in reverse. Instead of missing the comforts and routines of their rooms, siblings and favorite home-cooked meals, kids suffering from campsickness feel deep sadness at leaving their new BFFs, nonstop activities, late-night chat sessions and budding independence.
It can be a rough transition. "Good morning!" we chirped on Rachel's first morning back last time, truly happy to have her home again. "Hi," she barely managed to sputter out, tears welling up in her eyes before she sprinted back to her room to sulk. And that was just the beginning. In the days—and weeks—that followed, our normally sunny, chatty and funny grade-schooler was monosyllabic, temperamental and broke into tears with little or no provocation.
At first we thought she must have had a terrible time at camp. But we soon realized—after her incessant phone calls to bunkmates, anguished letters to them ("I miss you sooooooooo much") and pleas to be driven every day to their far-flung houses—that in fact she had loved her experience so much that it pained her to be at home.
Turns out that this roller coaster of feeling isn't unusual among America's 10 million summer campers. But are we talking about serious emotional trauma here? "I don't think it's a malady in the sense like it's a diagnosis," says Ethan Schafer, a clinical psychologist in Ohio and consultant for camp counselors and directors. "But it's a real emotion. It's a mild kind of grief." (And it's not so much fun for the parents either.)
Younger campers might express that profound sense of longing by acting more negatively, while older ones tend to talk about their loss more, he says. The better the camp experience, the worse the symptoms can be. "My son cried for two days when he got home last year," says Dr. Edward Walton, an assistant professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics at the University of Michigan and an American Camp Association board member.
Though it sounds distressing, Schafer says being campsick can be healthy and teach kids about their own resiliency. "It's good for kids to be exposed to a mild amount of distress and then learn to live with it," he says. The first step for parents trying to understand the phenomenon is to make sure nothing truly awful like an accident or incident happened while their child was away. Then give the kids a chance to express what they are feeling but be aware that "you might have to open that door up 10 times before they walk through," Schafer warns. In other words, resist the urge to cajole an explanation out of a mopey, teary child.
Ooops. So demanding that Rachel cheer up and threatening that she wouldn't be able to go back to camp next year if she continued to sulk wasn't the right strategy?
"What you don't want to do is make it a confrontation, make it a battle, like, 'We have to talk about this before you leave this room,'" Schafer says. Well, at least my husband and I didn't go that far. We didn't do any lasting damage. Probably.
To get the conversation going, Walton recommends starting with questions such as what was good and bad about camp, what she learned and what people or things she is missing. If parents explain that campsickness is normal, "it validates what they're feeling," Walton says. "The child will realize that a lot of people go through this."
That's what Sally Griffin did when her then 10-year-old son Tyler returned from Camp Belknap in New Hampshire feeling sad, lonely and aloof. "I talked to him about the nitty-gritty details," she says. Tyler, now 15, says at first he didn't know what was wrong with him. "Why was I so down when I came back from such a great time?" he wondered. "I was not wanting to do anything, not wanting to see friends, wanted to be by myself." About the only thing that cheered him up: "You start the countdown for 11 months from now."
Getting back to normal routines can help ease the re-entry period, such as returning to soccer practice and helping out with chores. While patience and tolerance are good, Schafer says, parents shouldn't indulge a gloomy camper too much. "It's the wrong idea to say OK, you don't want to do anything? Then you don't have to do anything," he advises. "You can say, 'I know you're having a hard time, but you still have to make your bed and all that stuff'."
Above all, moms and dads should simply listen. "Your goal is not to solve their problem or to fix them in some way," he says. "Your goal is to understand them. You don't need to have A's in communication skills. You can have B's."
And it helps to keep in mind that being campsick may not even be a bad thing—at least for the camper. "That's just a reflection of a fantastic camp experience," explains Walton.
Meanwhile, there's always next year to look forward to. Preparation is key. For a child apt to be campsick—someone who has a lot of trouble saying goodbye to a beloved person or thing—parents should talk about what to expect and remind their child that she got through it before and will so again.
How will my husband and I get through it? At least this time we'll be ready with the tissues, plans with friends, special dinners and favorite stuffed animals. Oh yeah, and we'll make sure Rachel has some coping mechanisms, too.