Camp anx­i­ety is far more than home­sick­ness

Get in­formed about this grow­ing is­sue

Richmond Hill Post - - Kids | Parent To Parent & Parent Hacks - JOANNE KATES Par­ent­ing colum­nist Joanne Kates is an ex­pert ed­u­ca­tor in the ar­eas of con­flict me­di­a­tion, self-es­teem and anti-bul­ly­ing, and she is the di­rec­tor of Camp Arowhon in Al­go­nquin Park.

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. So I use my favourite anti-anx­i­ety tool: Med­i­ta­tion breath­ing. It doesn’t make the fear go away. The fear is a fa­mil­iar life­long vis­i­tor. But the med­i­ta­tion breath­ing qui­ets the claus­tro­pho­bia mon­ster’s voice.

An­other great tool in the tool­kit is pos­i­tive self-talk. This is where we spit in the face of the fear. We say: “I can do this!” Or “This feels hard, but I know I can man­age it.” Or “I’ve done this be­fore and I can do it again.” I find mut­ter­ing these in­can­ta­tions un­der my breath or say­ing them aloud to be re­ally help­ful. Say­ing it out loud makes it real, and then you can man­age to do it, most times.

The third strong tool is hav­ing help­ful say­ings typed or written up and posted around — in their cubby at camp, in their toi­letry bag, in their jour­nal. My favourite help­ful say­ing is taped to the top of my jewellery box. It says: “Feel­ings are not re­al­ity. Take three deep breaths.” This is for when big, bad thoughts or scary wor­ries at­tack. It works every time.

And speak­ing of jour­nals, please send your anx­ious child to camp with ei­ther a jour­nal or a “tool box.” This is where chil­dren put all their anti-anx­i­ety tools and where they go to find them when they for­get, be­cause for­get they will.

When you write to them at camp, re­mind them about it. Ex­press con­fi­dence in their abil­ity to stride through their anx­i­ety and use the tools to do what they want to do. Don’t tell them not to worry or they’ll feel un­heard. Tell them you know it’s hard and you know they can do it. Be­cause we can.

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