Some children feel extra-nervous about going to camp this year. Here’s how you can help them.

Child Health | 10 months ago

Easing Kids' Anxieties about Summer Camp

Some children feel extra-nervous about going to camp this year. Here’s how you can help them.

As children begin summer camps, we’re hearing from providers with Atrium Health Levine Children’s and Atrium Health Behavioral Health Services that some kids are experiencing higher-than-usual levels of stress and anxiety. It’s understandable. Many of these children have spent much of the past year and a half learning remotely, with fewer social interactions with their peers. A return to social activities for kids, much like adults, can come with stress.

Here, two experts share advice on how parents and caregivers can help children who are nervous about camp: Amii Steele, PhD, chief of the Division of Pediatric Psychology & Neuropsychology at Atrium Health Levine Children's Hospital, and MM Naveen, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Atrium Health Behavioral Health Charlotte.

What to do Before Your Child Goes to Camp:

Prepare for camp: Ask questions, get positive.

Before children leave for camp, initiate positive conversations about camp: Talk about the fun experiences they’ll have and the new friends they’ll meet. Don’t assume that your child is nervous, but be open to learning about their feelings and helping them envision what camp will be like.

“It can go a long way to ask your child how they're feeling about camp,” Dr. Steele says. “For example, asking, ‘Hey, how are you feeling about camp?’ or ‘What do you think about horseback riding?’ Then, together, you can look at the camp website so you and your child can imagine what it will be like at this camp.”

Distinguish normal nerves from anxiety.

Many children will become nervous before going to a camp, whether it’s a sleepover camp or a daytime camp. Those nerves are completely normal. But when nervousness becomes anxiety, children may experience somatic symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches that aren’t readily explained. Kids may feel restless or even pace. Children of all ages may reveal their anxiety by seeming unusually short-tempered or defiant.

“Note the severity of the changes in your child, as well as their duration,” Dr. Naveen says. “It’s very normal for children starting camp to find the experience is a little anxiety provoking. But after the first week or so, a child should begin to feel settled and adjusted, and you’ll see many of those symptoms subside. But if these symptoms persist for more than a few days to a week, it may be more serious than usual to-be-expected nervousness.”

Recall past successes and prepare coping strategies.

If a child is nervous before camp, tell them that those feelings are normal and valid. Think of previous stressful transitions that the child maneuvered successfully – perhaps a first day of school – and talk about what made that transition go well. Remind your child how a little time and a few coping strategies can make something that seems scary at first become something that’s fun.

“Deep belly breathing can be effective for school age or adolescent children. Teach them to take big, deep breaths through the nose and then blow out the air through their mouth. It’s really helpful to calm the nervous system,” says Dr. Steele. “It’s super quick and highly effective. We carry around our lungs wherever we go, so we never need any special equipment to do this.”

Dr. Naveen also recommends that kids of all ages ground themselves in their senses when they feel stressed. What are they smelling? Seeing? Feeling? Tasting? Hearing? Adolescents may find it helpful to take a shower or bath to ground themselves. Kids of all ages might find it soothing to listen to music or go for a walk.

Parents, watch your stress levels, too.

Parents and caregivers should be aware of their own stress and anxiety levels about the camp experience. If they’re feeling worried about kids going to camp, kids will notice and may take on that stress themselves.

“Kids pick up on parents’ emotions, so we want to regulate our own emotions first because our kids totally pick up on those,” Dr. Steele says.

Many of these tips can help anxious parents, too. By speaking positively about the child’s camp experience and normalizing their emotions, parents may feel less worried about the transition themselves.

What to Do While Your Child is at Camp:

Minimize cell phones and social media.

Camp time may also be a good break from cell phones and social media, whether kids are nervous or not. For children who feel anxious about camp, avoiding social media takes on greater importance.

“Flooding children with too much information when they're already overstimulated is not a good thing,” Dr. Naveen says. “Also, when it comes to social media, I see a lot of my patients making constant comparisons to their peers, wondering whether or not they’re living up to what other kids are doing. When someone is already not in the best frame of mind and perhaps thinking negatively about themselves, you don't want to introduce other reasons for them to feel badly.”

Dr. Steele believes that a tech-free break for kids may even be more important this year. “Especially after the pandemic, having a safe setting to engage with peers and try new things that don't involve technology is a wonderful thing to focus on,” she says. “Other than using phones to contact parents, kids should focus on being in the present moment and enjoying camp.”

Partner with camp counselors.

The counselors at your child’s camp are your allies. If you realize your child is nervous or anxious, let the counselors know. They have different ways to ease the concerns of children, whether it’s pairing them with a buddy who’s enjoying camp or spending some extra one-on-one time with them.

“Definitely communicate with camp counselors so that you can learn what they’re seeing and find out ways they can help,” Dr. Naveen says.

Manage children’s stress.

If your child contacts you from camp to express their fears or anxieties, listen to what they say and validate those feelings: Stress and loneliness can be normal experiences that we can work through with our coping strategies. If they ask to come home early, remind them of something they were looking forward to at camp. Typically, avoid having them end camp early unless there’s an injury or a serious event.

“Understand how they’re feeling, normalize that and then make a plan,” Dr. Steele says. “Perhaps you say something like, ‘Remember how you were excited to try horseback riding? You get to do that tomorrow. Try that, and then we’ll talk again.’ Then contact the counselors to let them know what you’re hearing and how they might help.”

What to Do After Your Child Returns from Camp

Prepare for back-to-school.

For a child who spent much of last year learning remotely, camp may be a re-introduction to socialization with peers and – with that – presents an opportunity to prepare them to re-enter the classroom full-time this fall.

“Hopefully camping is a low-pressure setting, so it’s a good time to try different coping strategies to see what works,” Dr. Naveen says. “Then, you can have a good game plan ready for when the stakes are higher and school begins.”

Include your child in conversations about how camp went: How they felt, what coping strategies worked, what might work better next time. Then apply these lessons to the back-to-school transition.

Find support if needed.

If you feel that your child needs help coping with stress and anxiety, talk to your pediatrician about the child’s symptoms and to learn about available resources. If the symptoms of anxiety don’t subside after a week or so, it’s a good sign that your child may need extra support. At Atrium Health, we’re able to schedule outpatient appointments for new patients within a few weeks. In addition, you can find videos and apps that can help you teach your child deep breathing and mindfulness techniques that can be incredibly helpful for children (and adults, too).

  • If you or your child or teen is struggling right now, call Atrium Health’s Behavioral Health Help Line at 704-444-2400 for 24/7 crisis assistance.
  • Read more about our child and adolescent behavioral health care offerings here.