Camp anxiety is far more than homesickness
My camp team has been going to the biggest camp directors conference in the world, the American Camp Association TriState Conference, for years: 4,000 camp directors, four days, about 20 workshops on offer in every time slot, all day, every day. Many learning options for us. But not as many these days. Why? Because they’re focussing on mental health at camp.
Because anxiety is the new epidemic at summer camps. Hence the attention. Is it real, or are we just noticing it more?
Unfortunately it’s real. Twentyfive years ago camps didn’t get calls from parents saying their child is too anxious to swim in the lake … or go on canoe trip … or leave home. There was homesickness, and it went away after a few days. Anxiety doesn’t go away. And it’s affecting staff, too, stopping some of them from performing all their duties.
Why the anxiety epidemic? Because parenting, which for our parents was so simple, has become a minefield of competing ideologies and practices. We can’t enjoy the easy confidence our parents had about getting it right. This makes everyone anxious. Because post 9/11 the world feels more anxious. Because the Internet brings us too much scary news 24/7. Because we fear for our kids’ employment future, so we infect them with our worry, so they get tutored to get into the right school, so they can get into the right university program, so they can get the right internships, so they can.…
We drive them to school because we fear the streets. We put them in after-school and weekend programs so they can learn the right stuff.
Gone are the endless carefree hours of unstructured free play, gone are road hockey and the feeling, for kids, that the actual physical world is a safe and wonderful place to explore. Gone are the social learnings of play. In their place is the new world of Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat, a Wi-Fi world where anxiety thrives like mildew on a wet bathing suit in a plastic bag. Because every day, every hour, kids see shiny images they’re worried about living up to. They witness incessant friending and unfriending; they see people going to parties they’re not invited to: Which all cranks up social anxiety.
Enough of the problem. What are we, as parents, to do about it? Do we send them off to camp with anxiety in their invisible baggage? Not without an “anxiety toolkit” — at their peril.
A robust camp kids’ anxiety toolkit takes an expert to build. If your anxious kid has a therapist, the therapist should be putting tools in the child’s hands. If not, get a new therapist. There are a lot of them out there.
Anti-anxiety tools go like this: I’m claustrophobic. Really. Elevators scare me. Crowded or rickety elevators are almost impossible for me to enter. And yet sometimes life requires this of me.