Letters, Photos and Calls, Oh My! Tackling Common Camp Triggers
July 5, 2023, by MCE Blog Team
Letters, Photos and Calls, Oh My! Tackling Common Camp Triggers
July 5, 2023, by MCE Blog Team

Dr. Tracy Brenner, “The Camp Counselor” and Maine Camp alumna, shares advice for tackling common camp triggers in this week’s Maine Camp Experience guest blog post …

First and foremost, congratulations, parents! You did it! Whether the separation was seamless or challenging, your kids are busy making friends, trying new things and getting settled into their summer homes. Hopefully by now you are also starting to get into your own summer rhythm. However, even the most laid-back parents who have thrown themselves into summer fun will find that there are common triggers that can derail things. Today, I’ll identify those triggers and offer tips and strategies for managing your emotional reactions and responding effectively to your child. 

For each of these topics – homesick letters, phone calls and photo viewing – the formula is the same (see blog 3 for more details on managing your emotions). Step 1: Prepare yourself by setting the stage (“I’m about to log on to look at camp photos, check the mail, have a call … it may be positive, negative or mixed.”) Step 2: Remind yourself that all emotions are normal. Throughout the summer your child will feel a full range of feelings so if your child seems “not happy,” it’s just one moment in time. Step 3: Remind yourself that challenges are not bad, they help kids grow. If your child is having a hard time (while it gives us heartache) they truly are building grit and resilience. Remind yourself that they can do hard things (and you can too!). Step 4: Take a deep breath. Step 5: Use your coping skills. Plan something fun and distracting to do after reading, viewing or talking, so you are not stuck in the anxiety spiral.

Homesick Letters: You’ve done your emotional prep…But you open the mail and you have a homesick letter. Your heart sinks. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that missing home is a normal part of being away. Remind yourself that letters are written during downtime. This context is incredibly important. It is much harder to miss home while trying to get up on waterskis, cheering loudly in the dining hall or playing a tennis match. Remind yourself that two things are true: Your child can simultaneously miss home AND have fun. Then, take another look at the letter. Was there anything positive in there? Pay attention to that! It’s just as important as the sad feelings. 

What do you do next? I’d like you not to act, even for a short period of time. Sit with your feelings, have compassion for them and help yourself cope rather than getting alarmed or reactive (i.e. spiraling on group chats or calling the director with urgency). Keep in mind that while you just got this letter, it was written several days ago. Remember that you trust the camp and they will let you know if there’s a problem. If you can tolerate waiting, see if it’s a pattern before calling camp.

Your response: In your reply, strike a balance of empathy, validation, trust and encouragement. Here’s a sample: 

Dear [Camper’s Name], 

I got your last letter and I can hear how much you missed us when you wrote it [validation]. I imagine that’s the hardest part about camp [compassion]. I want you to know that I hear you and I believe you [support, trust]. I also want you to know that I believe IN you [encouragement]. Being away from home feels hard because it is hard [more validation]. Even when it feels so hard to do so, try to throw yourself into something you love, like a free period at gymnastics or a swim in the lake [distraction and engagement]. Remember the many people who are there to help you and reach out for a hug if you need one [reminders of support]. I’m sending one in this letter right here. Remember, no matter what the clock will tick [pep talk].  I love you. 

Love, [Mom/Dad]

Photos: Pictures from camp provide a window into your child’s universe and if your child is captured laughing with friends, engaged in activities or smiling ear to ear, they provide comfort to parents. However, for some, they serve as both a stressor and a time suck. In order to combat the drain on both time and emotional energy, remind yourself that photos are snapshots in time. Avoid reading into them. If your child doesn’t look happy, s/he may be deep in thought, concentrating on the activity or feeling any of the other dozens of emotions s/he might feel in a day. After all, who walks around smiling all the time? If your child is absent from a photo featuring their friend group, don’t panic! (They could be just out of frame, at a different activity or even in the restroom.) 

If you are finding that refreshing and viewing photos is taking over your summer, try the following strategies: Limit yourself to a clearly defined schedule for viewing (i.e. once a day for 20 minutes; three times a week; etc.) Set a timer for the duration that works for you and logoff when the timer goes off. Or, if photo viewing causes more stress than joy, don’t look! Save the photos for the end of the summer and look at the pictures with your camper. This can be a great way to connect and learn so much more about their experience without any of the mental anguish for you. 

Phone Calls: As a parent we may be extremely excited and eager to talk to our children and ultimately slightly disappointed with how the call goes. My advice: Set the bar low! Kids today have very little practice talking on the phone: They FaceTime and text but rarely call. So calls might feel awkward or stilted, but that doesn’t mean anything is wrong. It’s an unfamiliar experience. Similar to letter writing, the context is important. Kids may be pulled out of an activity to talk and are eager to get back to the action. Your child may be in a busy office or call center, meaning they might be distracted or more hesitant to say a lot. In short, if your child is not verbose, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong. Prepare yourself for emotion. Hearing your child’s voice or their hearing yours for the first time may spark emotion. If the tears come (for you or your child), that’s normal. It’s a big moment. Finally, respect the camp’s time limit on phone calls and make the goodbye quick. You may even want to begin the call with a reminder that when they are told that time is up you will say a quick goodbye and hang up. Remember, camp is a loving, nurturing community and as soon as your child hangs up, there will be people there to provide support. Recovery after a call is usually fast. Parents, I hope that will be the same for you!

Remember, the challenges of camp are what help children build resilience, self-confidence, independence and grit. While it may be hard for us to see our kids as anything less than happy, remember that no one is happy all the time. When letters, photos or phone calls cause your emotional temperature to rise, practice these skills and remind yourself that your child will get through difficult moments. And so will you!

Dr. Tracy Brenner is a clinical psychologist and can be reached at drtracybrenner@gmail.com, www.drtracybrenner.com or @drtracybrenner on instagram.

Maine Camp Experience Resources & Tools

You can share your own Maine camps memories & expressions of gratitude on our Memories of Camp section of our website.

Looking for the perfect Maine camp for your child?  Try out our helpful tool where you can select a camp by choosing: type of camp (girls, boys or coed) and session length (1-8 weeks).  It helps to narrow down a few camps to a manageable list that includes rates.  Then you can research these camps in more depth.  

Next, be sure to contact our Maine Camp Guide, Laurie to discuss these camps as well as for free, year-round advice and assistance on choosing a great Maine summer camp for your child.

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