They’re Leaving Home: Advice for campers, parents and teens from Dr. Jacqueline Hubbard
Summer can be a season of change for children (and their parents). Dr. Hubbard offers some advice on how to ease their way.
It’s the time of year when children and parents are facing some important milestones in their lives together. For the youngest, this might be the first summer they’ll be going away to camp. For teens, especially graduating seniors, there’s the prospect of their first year at college — a pivotal time for both parents and kids. For students finishing college, there’s the daunting puzzle of where to go next — and for parents, the possibility of being first-time empty-nesters.
Thinking about such big changes — whether an impending departure or a brand new life chapter — can stir up a maelstrom of emotions, from separation anxiety to fears of the unknown. We asked Dr. Jacqueline Hubbard, a board-certified child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist in St. Pete, to share the best ways for families to navigate these exciting and sometimes scary moments.
Talk about the first time a child is going to be away from his parents for an extended period, at camp or perhaps a visit to other family members. What are some of the fears that come up for parents and kids, and what can they do to help ease them?
It is common for both parents and children to experience worry about summer camp. Worrying often stems from uncertainty and dealing with the unknown, and summer camp is a new experience for everyone. Anything parents can do to make camp seem as if it is more familiar will help ease some of the uncomfortable feelings.
Keeping a close an eye on your child’s concerns and fears is one of the first steps to help deal with worries as they arise. Let them know that it is okay to be worried (vs. “Don’t be scared”). Tell them how common it is and that most children have similar fears. Validate their feelings instead of trying to minimize them.
What’s a good way to help kids deal with homesickness? And to help parents who worry a lot when their child is away from home?
Homesickness is a normal feeling and typically felt at least once by a majority of campers. One of the best ways to combat homesickness is to start early, before a child leaves for camp, even before planning summer camp. Involving the child in the process of choosing a camp can help the child to be more invested in the process and feel more in control. It can help the child to begin to develop an excitement for what is to come.
Help your child to practice sleeping away in the form of a night or long weekend at a friend’s or relative’s house. Praise them on how well he or she did afterwards and how proud you are and your child should be for sleeping away from home. Remind your child of other instances where he or she has been independent and brave. If possible, visit the summer camp together before it starts, so your child will be familiar with the cabins and surroundings. Consider arranging for your child to go with a friend or relative, particularly if it is his or her first time.
Be enthusiastic about summer camp. Point out all the positives like meeting new friends, making s’mores and going on fun field trips. Work together as a family when packing. Send along a calendar and happy face stickers to mark the days. Have your child pick an object that serves as a reminder of home and brings comfort. Provide pre-addressed and pre-stamped envelopes, pens and paper so they can easily write home. Send a positive and encouraging letter in advance so that it will be there already and waiting for him or her to open.
Have and show confidence in your child. Be ready to receive a letter begging to come home one week, followed by one that says how much they love camp the next. Do not feel guilty about encouraging your child to stay at camp. For many children, camp is a first step toward independence and plays an integral role in their growth and development.
What should camp counselors do to help ease the way for homesick campers and helicoptering parents?
Camp counselors are known for being fun and great at interacting with kids. One of the best ways to combat being homesick is to stay busy. Having a packed agenda of fun activities with friends can help distract a child from missing home. Providing a brief summary of activities a parent’s child is enjoying can help ease some of the uncertainty and worrying a parent may have. Camp counselors can create a fun and socially safe environment for kids to make friends and explore new activities. Camp counselors are often well-trained in dealing with homesickness since it is so common. They can practice active listening. It helps to find out what the child misses, validate the feelings of homesickness, and normalize the child’s emotions. It can help to have group conversations, especially at bedtime, to allow campers to interact with one another, have an open dialogue and see that she or he is not the only one dealing with difficult feelings.
Many teens like to believe they’re independent, ready to leave home — until the reality of actually leaving hits them. How do you help them prepare for the challenges they’ll face when living away from their parents for the first time?
This situation has some definite similarities with going away for summer camp. The process starts early on with college planning. It is helpful to go to the school in advance so that your teen can learn the environment and surroundings. Being there can help incite enthusiasm in the family. Once again, emphasize the positives of the college and show confidence in his or her ability to handle the transition. Encourage him or her to talk about expectations and fears before leaving. Ask open questions about what he or she is looking forward to most or most afraid of. Practice active listening.
What’s the best way for parents to handle their teenagers’ anxieties about college?
There are a lot of transitions taking place from an academic, social, emotional and physical perspective that may be overwhelming. Keep an open dialogue. Try to refrain from criticizing, as well as trying to constantly fix the problem being discussed. Ask before offering advice. Sometimes, your young adult just needs to vent, be heard, and have his or her feelings validated.
Identify resources at the campus in advance in case help is needed. Encourage him or her to seek help when needed.
Send a care package. Care packages are not just for campers.
How do you counsel parents about the empty-nest syndrome?
First and foremost, remember to take care of yourself as you prepare for your teen to leave the nest. Set aside time for things you enjoy and interests you have. Keep in touch with adult children. Schedule time to have a check-in. Technology can be a great thing and allow you to see them via Facetime or Skype. Remember to also have healthy boundaries. If you are married, make sure to have quality time with your spouse and talk about what the next phase of life will look like, what you are looking forward to and most worried about. Focus on all the positives to the next chapter of your life where you likely will have more free time to explore hobbies and have fun. Rekindle friendships: both old and new. Reach out to friends and family if you need support.
Contact Dr. Hubbard at Jacqueline Hubbard, M.D., 147 2nd Ave. S, Suite 303, St. Petersburg, 727-877-8225, HubbardMD.com.
Watch the dRTB Live! interview with Dr. Hubbard on duPont Registry Tampa Bay’s Facebook page on Tues., June 18, beginning at 1 p.m.