Coping with the Fear of Going to Summer Camps

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“I’m bored!” said the girl to her mother, “there is nothing to do around here.” The mother heaved a deep sigh and though about how it would be a long summer as it was the first week of summer vacation. “How about going to some summer camps. There are a lot of neat ones available,” said the mother. The girl looked wide-eyed at her and said, “But I won’t know anyone at those camps. What if I don’t make any friends?”

Summer vacation is just underway and many children are getting ready to go to a variety of summer camps. While summer camps offer a way for children to learn new skills and meet new friends, it can also be a scary time for them. Camps often occur in unfamiliar settings where children don’t know anyone. Children can start worrying about whether they will be able to make new friends or whether the other children will tease them. These uncertainties can lead children to be scared and reluctant to go to summer camps at all, even when they are highly interested in going to them.

Parents can take several steps in soothing children’s fears. The first step is to take a child’s concerns seriously. Being unpopular or disliked by new children is always a possibility at summer camps. Parents can get a sense of how realistic this fear is based on their child’s past interactions with other children. If the child has had trouble making friends or has been teased in the past, her fears are more valid than a child who tends to get along well with others. Regardless, parents should gently encourage the child to go to the summer camps without resorting to forcing a child to go. One way to make it easier is to have the child go with a friend. This can go a long way in decreasing a child’s fears.

A second step is to anticipate and prepare for a child’s fearful reaction. This is likely to occur the night before or morning of a summer camp. Parents can be preventative by finding children’s books that focus on going to new places and making new friends. The public library often has books on these types of topics. Parents can ask their local librarians what they would recommend.

Parents can also review with the child what camp will be like and remind them of other times she went to a new place and it turned out that the child had a good time. Another option is for parents to give their child some ideas on how to start conversations with other children.

A third step is teach a child to recognize when she is feeling anxious or fearful. This can include recognizing physical symptoms such as rapid breathing or increased heart rate. Parents can then remind the child to start using positive self-talk like saying, “I will be fine and I will make some friends here.” Another technique is to have the child use relaxation techniques such as deep breathing.

If the summer camps are longer in length, parents may want to consider enrolling their child in a shorter, half-day camp. The shorter camp can give the child more confidence that everything will be okay when she attends a longer camp.

Summer camps can be a highlight of the summer and children should not let their fears exclude them from the experience. Parents can gently encourage children to go to summer camps by being patient and setting children up for a successful experience. This will allow some relief from the “I’m bored” summer mantra and provide children with a good summer experience.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on June 15, 2014.

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