It’s Spring which means that before you know it, you’ll be at the bus stop sending your kid off to camp for the first time for what is sure to be the time of his or her life! She’s watched the welcome video, taken the tour, and has shown nothing but excitement about being a camper.
Yet, as the date on the calendar approaches, you may notice a change in her tone. Her excitement has been tempered by her concerns. What if she doesn’t make friends? What if the food isn’t good? What if they make her play sports she isn’t good at, or swim in the deep end, which terrifies her. What if she’s homesick?
This can be a tricky situation for parents. Some may reconsider their decision, while others may be inclined to respond with a “Don’t worry! Everyone loves camp when they get there.”
There is a lot you can do to prepare for these moments with your new camper, which we will get to shortly. But here’s what I encourage you to do first: Unless your child has been diagnosed with anxiety, I strongly encourage you to coach them through their fears and concerns without using the words stress and anxiety.
Camp is a transition, which means it’s novel and unpredictable. These same qualities make it exciting and also a little unsettling because we like the familiar and known. Framing this as a normal, natural part of the process helps kids understand and develop a tolerance for what they are feeling.
However, when we associate these natural, normal feelings with a negative word like anxiety, we frame the experience in a way that encourages us to see that there is something wrong. Once the “anxiety monster” is awakened, it’s powerful. Instead of, “Camp is a new, exciting experience that may take some time to adjust to” the message the monster sends the message that, “Camp is stressful and I have anxiety about camp.”
If you think of anxiety as a wedge, with the thinnest part being the jitters and the thickest part being panic disorder, where do your child’s pre-camp fears fall? If they are losing sleep, or obsessing over it, they are on the thicker side of the wedge. If that’s the case, enlist the help of a licensed therapist.
But if you listen to their worries and they sound on the thinner side of the wedge, you can coach them through their fears without mentioning anxiety. But I believe it’s in everyone’s best interest to use these words–stress and anxiety–selectively. Instead, here are some ideas to fortify them with tools for resilience and coping.
So, how can you talk to your camper about his worries and fears?
To start with, emotions are contagious, and kids often mirror ours. It’s normal to feel some worry about your kids, but be aware of it and acknowledge it beforehand with your partner or your best friend. Write out your concerns and identify the worst case scenario. In other words: Get that business under control before you attempt to coach your 10 year-old into becoming a confident camper!
Once you’ve tamed your own anxieties, you can take some of these proactive steps for developing resilience and problem-solving, while leaving the “a-word” out of the equation.
Update your vocabulary: Here are some other words for anxiety and stress that you can memorize:
- Thinking about
Listen to them: Kids want to be heard and not judged. If they are coming to you and telling you that they are scared of certain things, hear them out. If their concerns seem trivial to you, bite your cheeks and let them know you hear them.
Don’t trivialize or generalize: Feelings are real, and we don’t have to be afraid of having them. In fact, the more we can identify them, the less consuming and mysterious they are. We don’t have to fix them with a platitude like, “Everyone feels like this at first, but everyone loves camp.” Kids are perceptive–What if they get there and everyone else seems to be having a great time except them? What if they really don’t love it? Instead…
Empathize like a pro: “I hear you (insert pet name). I really do.”
Normalize and relate: What they are feeling is normal, so let them know that with a simple statement like: “It’s normal to feel a mix of feelings when you are doing something new.” You can also try relating, but don’t steal the focus. You can say something like, “I remember feeling pretty similar when I____________” and then dig back into your past and find a parallel experience where you were nervous.” Help them understand that novelty may bring up some feelings and to let them see your vulnerability.
Make it concrete: Help him identify the fear. If they say they’re just nervous, coax them to clarify: Are they nervous about getting changed in front of other people, or to play soccer, or to eat in a dining room because they are picky eaters. Once it’s more concrete, kids can see that what they feel is only a part of the whole experience.
Name the feeling: After you make it concrete, help him identify the feeling. Each kid will have a unique thing that makes him jittery, and a feeling that goes along with it. Don’t presume to know, and give him space to explore it. If he’s stuck, offer something like, “Would you be afraid…” or “Are you embarrassed…” or “Does it make you nervous?”
Help them anticipate or problem solve: In these conversations, hopefully you will get some valuable, concrete information. Let’s take the example of changing in front of other people because they are embarrassed. Ask him, “What can you do?” Maybe he can change in the bathroom at first, or get up a little earlier, or wait until everyone is done. Even if he doesn’t do any of these things, the practice of problem solving is empowering. Or in the example of being a picky eater, ask him to identify the foods he definitely likes, take a look at the sample menus and talk about how he can find these things at camp. Let him know that the Camp Moms can always be there to help him make choices. Or in the example of homesickness, read the book, “The Kissing Hand” before they leave and kiss their hand. Whenever they need a connection they can kiss their hand or just remember that in their hand always is a kiss from home.
Remind him of other times he was brave: Bravery is not the absence of fear, it’s doing things we are afraid of. Help them remember times when they did things that required some bravery. Ask them to recall the details and if they can’t you can do it for them. Make the connection that this experience is like those other times.
Give them your confidence: Throughout their lives, kids look to us for cues on what’s okay–It’s called social referencing and it starts when they are infants. This is why you checked your own anxiety before these talks–so that you can give him your confidence. You can use the examples of other times he was brave or other times things worked out for him. Even better: if you can acknowledge his fears and also boost his confidence. Something like, “I know you’re worried now kid, but I’ve seen you do so many amazing things. I trust that you are going to be okay.”
There are lots of ways to deal with nervous kids that fall in the “What Not To Do” category, which you can learn about here.
A real life example:
This came up recently in my own house. My daughter was getting ready to sing at her school’s talent show. She was complaining of a stomach ache. She had butterflies in her stomach, she was antsy and she was talking a mile a minute.
I asked her if she might have a case of the jitters. She asked me to clarify and I told her that it was a mix of being nervous and excited. Yes, that’s exactly what she had. Is it normal she asked?
Yes. Feeling the jitters before a big performance is common. Who do you know has probably had the jitters?
Cousin Shane? Before a game?
Yes, I think so.
I don’t want to sing. I’m too nervous.
I know you are buddy. I’ve been there too. But I’ve seen you be brave before.
Your first day of camp. Remember? We talked about first days, and how it would be nicer if you could start camp on the third day, after you knew what to expect.
Smiling–Yes, I guess that was pretty brave.
It was. Can you imagine how you might feel after the performance?
Smiling again–Proud of myself.
And she sang her heart out, I cried and it was awesome.
This was not a long conversation, and it didn’t take a whole lot of digging. For something like camp, which is a bigger experience, you may have to have a few more of these talks. If you choose to, you are strengthening both your connection and the muscles of courage and resilience.
Imagine your kid showing up on camp’s shores for the first time. Instead of saying, “I am stressed,” or “I am anxious,” he is remembering your talks leading up to the experience. He is parroting your language, and he’s telling his counselors that he knows it’s normal to feel a mix of feelings when he’s trying something new. He recalls your words, “You’ve been brave before and you’ve done so much.” He is empowered, and because he is, he can connect with his counselor because he is not withdrawn and distressed.
It’s easy to default to the words stress and anxiety. But for novel experiences, which are part of life, we owe it to kids to teach them that there are loads of other emotional options. We can teach them that a mix of excitement and nerves is normal. If we know that this is part of the deal and how to manage these feelings, then we can cultivate healthy mindset and resilience.
Feelings are normal and manageable. Kids look to us for cues, and our influence on their perception of things cannot be overstated. Give them more than anxiety and stress as an explanation, and watch them become mentally strong and brave!
About the Author:
Helaina Altabef is a parent educator, coach, and teen advocate with over 15 years of experience working with teens. You can download her “8 Go-To Lines All Parents Should Memorize” on her website Tame the Teen.