"kids at summer camp"What Every Parent Should Know Before Sending Kids to Summer Camp

For many children, the prospect of leaving home for a day, a week, or more can be more distressing than it is exciting. That’s why Todd Patkin says it’s crucial for parents to know the basics of alleviating separation anxiety—and how to tell if your child’s fears are downright unhealthy.

School’s out, temperatures are rising, and the outdoors are beckoning…and that means that across the country, kids and their parents are gearing up for day camps and sleep-away camps. The problem is, not all soon-to-be campers are excited about their summer schedules. Some children are unsure about spending so much time away from their homes and parents…and some are downright terrified by the prospect. Yes, most children experience some degree of separation anxiety, and many eventually learn to deal with the absence of their parents without experiencing undue stress. However, assuming that your homesick child will “get over it” might be a false—and even dangerous—assumption to make.

“I know from firsthand experience, as well as subsequent study, that separation anxiety can be more than just a harmless childhood phase,” says Todd Patkin, author of the new book Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In (StepWise Press, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-9658261-9-8, $18.00, www.toddpatkin.com). “As parents, we need to be careful that we aren’t unwittingly harming our children by trying to make them stronger, or by expecting them to do what we did or what all of the neighbors’ children are doing.”

Patkin speaks from experience. He dealt with separation anxiety throughout his childhood and remembers one instance in particular that was nearly disastrous.

“When I was ten years old, my parents decided to send me to a sleep-away sports camp in a different state. They figured I’d enjoy it because my brother did, and because I loved sports. Boy, were my mom and dad wrong despite their best intentions!

“The first night away from home I barely slept, and the next day I felt panicked and sick. Soon, I was experiencing full-blown anxiety attacks (though I didn’t recognize them as such). My heart was pounding so hard I thought I was going to die. After seventy-two hours away, I was willing to do anything to get home…so I tried to drink some of the paint in the art shop to force my ticket home. Luckily a counselor caught me before I could really harm myself, and my parents were called to bring me home early.”

Patkin’s story illustrates in vivid detail just how real the anxiety that stems from severe separation anxiety is for children, and it also shows that homesickness won’t necessarily go away on its own. Stressful separations can have longer-lasting consequences, too.

“I have been haunted by memories of that terrible experience at camp from time to time ever since,” Patkin shares. “I found it difficult to sleep away from home throughout my teens, needed to attend a college close to my parents’ home, and even today, at age forty-six, I often have to push myself through a brief period of anxiety when I’m leaving home on an extended business trip.”

Patkin is adamant that it’s crucial for parents to gauge their kids’ levels of anxiety before making any firm summer plans. And licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Howard J. Rankin, who wrote the Expert View sections in Finding Happiness, agrees.

“There are many different degrees of homesickness, and it’s important to deal with them in appropriate ways,” Rankin adds. “It’s especially crucial to note that about one in twenty-five children suffers from Separation Anxiety Disorder. If you think your child might be one of them, you need to seek the help of a medical professional.” See attached sidebar to learn more about Separation Anxiety Disorder.

“It truly is critical to make sure your children are ready to go to camp before sending them, because if you don’t, you might find yourself stuck between a rock and a hard place,” confirms Patkin. “Leaving a too-anxious child at camp can cause real emotional harm…and conversely, what your child sees as the ‘failure’ to stick it out if you let her come home early can haunt her for years to come. If you do realize after you’ve already dropped your child off and driven away that she’s not doing well, work with camp officials to determine whether staying or coming home early would cause less overall emotional damage.”

Patkin especially wants to emphasize that children, and especially their emotional growth, are not one-size-fits-all. And if you’re in doubt as to whether or not to send in your child’s registration, he suggests waiting until she is begging you to go to camp, and not the other way around.

In part two, we discuss how to spot separation anxiety and how you may be able to alleviate it if it appears.

About the Authors:

Todd Patkin grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter.

Dr. Howard J. Rankin is the creator of www.scienceofyou.com and founder and president of the American Brain Association. He is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private psychotherapy practice, the Rankin Center for Neuroscience and Integrative Health, on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. He has written five books and coauthored two more, including the bestselling Inspired to Lose. His video and workbook The Five Secrets of Lifestyle Change were released in early 2011.