School camps, slumber parties and sleepovers are important steps to your child gaining their independence, but for some kids and their parents, this potentially positive experience can be riddled with anxiety. Thankfully, there are effective strategies which resolve some of the most common concerns around sleeping away from home or without the comfort of family.
For kids in later primary school, Term One here in Australia often includes the obligatory school camp. Similarly, the school holidays for tweens and teens often provide an exciting opportunity for children to engage in fun overnight holiday camp programs, or perhaps your child may be invited to their first sleepover at a friend’s house. Whether it is a slumber party, school trip or even an overseas camp, the emotions and concerns you and/or your children may have remain the same. Although it is not unusual to have apprehension around first-time sleepovers, the good news is that there are ways to manage these worries and make it the positive experience it should be for both parents and kids.
Read on for our top tips for successfully navigating this adventure together.
Why can Overnight School Camp seem scary?
Just like anything new, overnight trips present children with a series of unknowns. These can range from primal concerns around their safety, to social concerns about fitting in and getting along with peers, to practical concerns like whether they will remember everything or pack the right things. Knowing the main theme of your child’s concern will be the first step in assisting them to feel more confident.
Strategies for Parents of first-time School Campers
Overall, the main goal for parents is to focus on positives. Think about what your child has to gain from this experience. It is very likely to be a great opportunity to establish new friendships, participate in hands-on learning experiences and, importantly, gain a sense of independence outside of the family network. The following considerations and tips may be helpful for parents:
- Are you yourself anxious? In preparation, it is important to check-in on how you are feeling yourself. What are you worried about as a parent? How are you addressing these concerns? In these times, if you are worried, you are more likely to present as flustered and somewhat erratic. This can heighten anxiety in young children, who could interpret camp as something to be concerned about. It is important to manage your own anxiety first!
- Homesickness chat. This is a big one! You may have experienced some separation anxiety with your child in the early years when beginning preschool. This experience is quite relatable in that it is an unknown situation. If your child is worried they may miss home too much to enjoy themselves, an easy fix can be to have your child bring with them an important item from home that can easily be popped in their bag.
- Pack together. Make it fun! Often camps will provide you with a list of required items.For a sleepover, you can call the other parent and jot down a list. Then turn packing into a game, such as collecting the required items as if on a scavenger hunt. Further to this, make sure you do not leave packing to the last minute! Think of the classic saying ‘failing to prepare is preparing to fail’; packing ahead of time will allow you to make any last trips to the shops if required.
- Reduce the sense of the ‘unknown’. Talk about what to expect and perhaps see if you can get a rough schedule for the camp. Where possible, make a rooming request with teachers/staff if the child is not given the option.
- Share your own positive experiences. Simply talking with your child about your good experiences on camp may help to further ease the fear of the unknown. It is okay to talk about experiences that also didn’t turn out too well, however it is important to emphasise the learning that came out of that experience!
- Normalise that some anxiety is okay. It is always important to emphasise that all feelings we experience are normal, and good, and part of our body looking after us. Holding onto anxious feelings is not helpful in the long term, however. Help your children to recognise when they don’t feel good, and to challenge an unhelpful feeling with a helpful thought or saying to themselves, for instance, “I’m feeling nervous, but I know I’ll have a great time with my friends on camp”.
- Account for any travel sickness or dietary needs in advance. As parents, you know what your child can and cannot handle. It is important to make staff aware of any accommodations that need to take place to help mitigate the likelihood of any predictable problems.
Strategies to Enhance your Child’s Confidence during School Camp
While there is a lot you can do to put your child at ease, it is important that they know how to be present and manage their anxiety while they are at camp without you. Teach your child to:
- Ease physical tension. When we are anxious, our body responds physically. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline can linger and perpetuate negative feelings. Practicing relaxation techniques at home will help your child to self-soothe while away. Examples include deep breathing and Progressive Muscle Relaxation.
- Worry diary. If something is bothering your child, encourage them to write it down in a journal, and leave the thoughts there until they are at home again.
- For the night-owls. If there is a certain item at home that helps your child get to sleep, let them take it to camp to help put them at ease. If your child seems embarrassed about having a comfort toy at camp, you could find a small precious object to pop under their pillow instead. A drawing/portrait of the toy or letter (perhaps even written in the voice of their special toy) are also good substitutes.
- Practice talking to staff. If your child does require assistance, often they may feel too anxious to tell someone about it because they do not want to get into trouble or bother anyone. Practice at home ways to approach and engage with staff or get their attention. This can be practiced with regards to how to complete activities, if a peer is unkind, when feeling homesick, or where to get their special dietary food from.
Some anxiety around first camps and overnight stays is normal and an important part of your child’s emotional development. If this distress is persistent, however, and detrimentally affecting your child’s overall functioning in other areas of life, it may be a warning sign of an ongoing issue. If you feel that you and/or your child require further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact our friendly reception on (02) 9362 9297.
For more on understanding children: Why Don’t Kids Like Chores?
NSW Government (2019). Preparing for School Camp. Retrieved from, https://education.nsw.gov.au/public-schools/practical-help-for-parents-and-carers/family-wellbeing/getting-ready-for-school-camp