Q: [Parents of Campers] I have read many advice pieces on how to deal with first time camper stress…but not for the parents. Am I the only mom freaking out about my baby being away for a whole week?
A: If your kids are going to sleep-away camp this summer, you may be wrestling with worries and what-ifs. What if he wets the bed? What if the other kids are cliquish or mean? Will the camp director call me if she’s miserable?
Why Parents Worry
You may worry that without structure kids won’t be able to handle routine tasks like showering, brushing teeth or getting dressed. One mom I know felt so sure her son wouldn’t change clothes at camp that she packed his items — one pair of underwear, shorts, shirt, and socks — in gallon-size Ziploc bags, labeled with the days of the week.
Because parents focus so much on kids’ needs, it’s hard to step back. Coverage of natural disasters and child predators makes the world seem scary. Even though our protective instincts keep us on edge, sometimes we have to trust others to care for our kids, and trust our kids to look out for themselves.
Fear of letting go can also be driven by our own uncertainty about who we are without our kids and what we’ll do while they’re away. Without baseball practice, piano lessons, bedtime routines and movie night, our lives would be slower and saner and…emptier.
How to Stop It
Don’t let worries weigh you down. Use them as an opportunity to confront your own needs for safety, control, and closeness. Here’s how:
Step back. Anxieties have a way of sucking you in. Your thoughts and emotions may be swirling like a tornado around you. Get out of the eye of the storm and reflect on your feelings. What exactly are your worries? Write them down so you can face them head on.
Question your assumptions. Fears may be fueled by irrational beliefs. Kids don’t suffer serious malnutrition from weeklong candy binges. And wearing dirty clothes won’t kill them either. Concerned your temperamental child won’t fit in socially? Allow for the possibility she’ll find buddies to hang out with all on her own. Don’t let your beliefs limit kids’ potential.
Keep goals in mind. Ultimately, parents want kids to become self-reliant,, and building self-reliance requires parents do less, not more for their kids. Camp builds competence and independence. Give your kids time to stretch beyond their comfort zones.
Have a plan. Keep anxieties in control by making a plan for how you’ll use your “time off.” Schedule special time with siblings who aren’t going camping. Plan a romantic date or overnight getaway with your spouse. Learn something new or catch up on your favorite shows. Stay busy (but in a good way). You deserve a change of pace, too.
Share stories. One sure-fire way to break out of anxiety is to remember and share the fun times you had at camp with your kids. Tell them where you went and what you did. The time you flipped your canoe over and got sopping wet in the lake shouldn’t be a secret. Kids love to hear about parents’ camp adventures.
Stay connected. The kids will be gone but not forgotten. Find fun postcards, print pictures of family pets, and collect care-package items to send. Getting mail from home makes kids feel special. Resist the urge to check in every day: kids need space. Send supplies so your kids can mail letters home. They’ll want to share their experiences and you’ll treasure their letters forever.
Anxiety is understandable, but it shouldn’t stop you from sending kids off to camp. It’s likely that many of your cherished childhood memories involve nature, new friends, and time to explore on your own — summer camp offers all these opportunities and more. It’ll be okay if they stay up too late, eat burned marshmallows, or lose their swim goggles in the lake. Really.
Heidi Smith Luedtke is a personality psychologist and mom of two adventurous kids. Her parenting psychology columns can be read in outlets around the country. She is the author of Detachment Parenting. Learn more at HeidiLuedtke.com