If your kids are going to sleep-away camp this summer, you may be wrestling with worries and what-ifs. What if they wet the bed? What if the other kids are cliquish or mean? Will the camp director call me if they’re miserable?
Why parents worry
“Much of our anxiety as parents stems from the fact that there are so many things we cannot control in our children’s lives,” says Paul Donahue, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of Parenting Without Fear. You may worry that without structure, kids won’t be able to handle routine tasks like showering, brushing their 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 plastic bags labelled 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 make the world seem scary. “Concern about the safety of children has become something of a national obsession,” observes Donahue. 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.
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 fuelled 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 they’ll find buddies to hang out with all on their own. Don’t let your beliefs limit kids’ potential.
Keep goals in mind. Ultimately, parents want kids to become self-reliant, says Donahue, 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. If allowed by the camp, 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. If allowed by the camp, don’t forget to send supplies so your kids can send 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, Ph.D., is a personality psychologist and mom of two adventurous kids. She is the author of Detachment Parenting. Learn more at www.heidiluedtke.com.
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