Dr. Tracy Brenner, “The Camp Counselor,” comes to us with tools to calm parental pre-camp jitters. Dr. Tracy is an alumna Maine camper and counselor, a psychologist and mental health expert, and a soon-to-be first-time camp parent. She shares …
Who has gotten their packing list and has started to feel those pre-camp butterflies? Who hasn’t gotten their packing list and is stressing because it hasn’t arrived? Now that the butterflies have started to flutter, it’s time to tackle camp-related anxiety.
Welcome back parents! In my previous posts I focused on the big picture: I shared why, as a psychologist, I believe that sleepaway camp is so good for children. I talked about how camp offers a unique space to build independence, self-esteem and resilience. I suggested that children are even more likely to thrive when parents resist the urge to have a hand in managing their child’s camp experience. I identified a key factor that makes it hard for parents to stay out of the camp bubble: parental anxiety. So today we get practical! Today’s post is all about noticing your fears and worries about sending your child away to camp and learning to respond to those fears and worries more effectively so you don’t burst that camp bubble!
Below is a four-step process to help manage those big feelings that get ignited before, during and after the summer. The goal is actually not to solve the problem but to acknowledge, process and have compassion for the related feelings. While I’ll be using anxiety or worry as an example, this same process can be applied to any feelings that emerge: sadness, disappointment, jealousy, etc. And it’s not just for feelings about camp. Use these steps below to help process any emotion in any context.
A timely [and perhaps autobiographical] scenario: You received the camp packing list. The list is long, with lots of options and you start to feel overwhelmed. It’s also the first moment that sending your child to camp becomes real whether your child is a first timer or a fearful veteran.
Step 1: Notice and name your feeling:
Say to yourself something like: “I notice that I’m feeling anxious” or “I’m feeling overwhelmed” or “I notice this is making me worried about the logistics of sending my child to camp but also sparking other worries about sending my child to (or back to) camp.”
This may seem obvious, but naming the emotion is an essential and often forgotten first step to coping with that feeling.
Naming helps in a few ways. It provides a moment of pause and allows us to accurately identify what, exactly, we are feeling. When we are hit with a wave of intense emotion we often react too quickly and with behaviors that are not effective for the situation (Think: yelling, screaming, drinking, over eating…). Naming helps us turn on our thinking brains. Once we activate “thinking mode” we can be helpful to ourselves and our children. We can’t manage our anxiety if we don’t realize we are feeling anxious.
Step 2: Make a compassionate statement for your feeling
Say to yourself: “There’s a lot to do to get my child ready for camp. I’ve never done this before, new things are stressful” or “This packing list is making camp feel very real for the first time and is bringing up other worries that I have about my son leaving home. It’s okay that I feel this way. Looming separation is hard.”
Feelings are normal, even if they’re uncomfortable, even if they’re hard. They don’t need to be responded to with action. They do need to be responded to with attention, compassion and care. Try saying something compassionate to yourself about what you are feeling and see if it both provides comfort and lessens the intensity of the emotion.
Step 3: Take a deep breath
By a deep breath I literally mean a deep, diaphragmatic breath. This is a deep inhalation through your nose and exhalation through your mouth. I put one hand on my chest and one on my belly and feel my abdomen rise and fall as the air travels to the deepest place in my lungs. This is the breath that is associated with relaxation. Practice this when you’re not overwhelmed by an emotion so that you are armed with the skill when you need it.
Step 4: Give yourself a pep talk
Note: this is step 4, not step 1! Very often people rush to this step in an attempt to avoid, deny or brush away their feelings. We need to implement steps 1-3 first because denial doesn’t work. The feelings will just keep seeping back in (think about when you can’t sleep because your mind is swirling with anxious thoughts). So after, and only after you have practiced steps 1-3, try a little pep talk like this:
“I’ve got this! These feelings I’m having are normal. I’m going to put one foot in front of the other and take care of the list and I’m going to notice other feelings that get sparked during this process so that I can respond to those effectively too. Even if big worries come up, I can handle them.”
In step four we remind ourselves again that sitting with uncomfortable feelings is hard. But we can do hard things.
Parents, practice these steps over the next month! Remember: NCDP: Name/Notice, Compassionate statement, Deep breath, Pep talk. When you feel your emotional temperature rising, your child’s probably is, too. Armed with these skills, you will be ready for the tips and strategies in my upcoming post when I’ll share how to help your child cope with his/her feelings about camp.
Maine Camp Experience Resources & Tools
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.
Talk to Laurie, our Maine Campcierge®, about choosing the right camp for your child and what to do in Maine.