By Daniel Sheras, Psy.D.
Q: My young child is going to day camp for the first time this summer. She tends to be shy and reserved in new situations. How can we help her adjust to this new environment and help her gain self-confidence?
A: This is an important issue that parents face and one that can cause some anxiety. Young children really do benefit from opportunities to have new stimulating experiences, learn new skills, and make new friends during the summer months, and day camps are really great opportunities for them do this. While no parent can be 100-percent sure that his or her child will love their first camp experience, there are a few tips that parents can follow to ease their child’s transition to camp and increase the chances that they will find it meaningful and fun!
- Find the right fit: Given that this is your child’s first camp experience, you will want a find a camp that is a match for her strengths and interests. Parents should talk to their children about some activities that they enjoy, and then do research to find camps that offer those opportunities. If your child likes nature, find camps that offer hiking. If she likes art, find ones with a focus on arts and crafts. If she is interested in a particular sport, find a camp that offers this activity. That being said, camps that offer several opportunities are great, too, because they allow children try a variety of new activities and identify new interests. Also, parents can limit their child’s anxiety by not choosing a camp that will create intense, undue fear for him or her. For example, if your child is afraid of animals, you would not want to choose a horseback-riding camp for her first experience. That being said, camp can be a good time for a child to overcome some of his or her fears, but the first experience is not the ideal time to do this. Also, include your child in the selecting of the camp. This may increase her excitement and willingness to attend. It will also allow her to feel a greater sense of control, which can reduce anxiety.
- Prepare your child for what to expect: Many young children get nervous in new situations. Take a look at the daily schedule for the camp you choose and go through it with your child. The more your child knows what to expect when they get to camp, the less worried she may feel about it. This also provides an excellent opportunity for parents to share their excitement about all of the fun new experiences their child will have at camp. Parents can say, “Wow! You get to go rafting today? That sounds like so much fun!” When your child sees your excitement, it may increase hers as well. Also, talk to your child about any fears she may have and offer some simple advice on how she can overcome these issues. Also, make sure that your child will have all the materials, clothes, or equipment she will need for each activity. Knowing that she is prepared for what each day has to offer may reduce some anxiety that she may be feeling. Some children may be nervous about meeting new people. This is perfectly natural, and parents should let their child know that a lot of the other children are probably nervous as well. One of the best ways to help your child with this is to role-play some possible scenarios with her about how to approach or talk to new children. Also, when you drop your child off for the first time, don’t be afraid to spend a little extra time with her as she gets adjusted and initiates contact with other children. After that happens, she might be begging you to leave!
- Communicate with counselors: If this is your child’s first camp experience, it is a good idea to have an open line of communication with at least one camp staff member who will be interacting with your child. This will provide you with someone to talk to about any special needs your child may have and to find out how she is adjusting to the new experience. You can fill this person in on what he or she might expect from your child. This will help the counselor be better able to address any issue that might arise with your child. This person can also be a “go to” person for your child if she is having problems or needs extra help or support when she is at camp. You don’t want your child to be over-reliant on this person, but it may be comforting for parent and child to know that they are there.
Other General Summer Transition Tips
The change in structure from school to summer can be difficult for some children and parents. Since there is often less structure at home than there is at school, increased structure at home may need to be introduced so that children remain productive, stimulated, and active. In order to set the tone for the summer, parents should clarify the “rules.” For example, what chores are your children expected to do each day? What will their schedules look like? Also, you will want to build in time for positive scholastic activities such as reading (which is often required by schools during the summer months.) Therefore, it is helpful to outline the times that your child needs to work on these activities. Scheduling camps and other activities for them is a great way to increase the structure of the summer months as well. Parents will still want to allow a good deal of free or relaxation time. After all, it the summer! So feel free to be more lax about certain issues, such as bedtime, time with friends, video game time, and be sure to schedule plenty of fun family activities. However, by introducing a little structure, parents can make the transitions out of and back into school a little more smooth.