How to help Scouts avoid homesickness at summer camp

Summer-Camp

Homesickness at summer camp is a common ailment, but parents and leaders can help Scouts win the battle, become more independent and have lots of fun.

Tyler is down in the dumps. His stomach hurts, and he’s on the verge of tears. This is his first year to attend summer camp, and now on the second day, all he can think about is heading home.

Tyler isn’t used to the sounds of nature at night, he’s missing vital episodes of his favorite Nickelodeon show, and he’s afraid his friends will call him a wuss if they find out he’s homesick. Tyler misses his home, his bed — and his parents.

Finally, Tyler calls his mom and dad on the Scoutmaster’s cell phone and convinces them to come pick him up. With a mixture of shame and relief, he leaves camp.

Next year’s camp? Forget it.

Ninety-five percent of children between the ages of 8 and 16 who attend a resident camp report some feelings of homesickness on at least one day, says Christopher Thurber, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who studies homesickness.

Twenty percent of those children report moderate-to-severe feelings of homesickness, and 7 percent experience intense homesickness associated with significant symptoms of depression and anxiety.

With more than 400,000 Scouts attending a long-term camp across the nation, that’s a lot of homesickness.

Thankfully, though, there are solutions that will help even the most homesick Scout become a confident camper.

Recognize the signs
Pinpointing which Scouts are the most likely to get homesick will alert you to signs of problems during camp.

It seems almost too simple to be true, but merely asking boys to rate how homesick they expect to be (on a scale of one to 10) is a reliable way to predict homesickness.

“They’ll come within a point or two of where they’ll end up being,” says Thurber.

Some Scoutmasters may think asking Scouts to rate their probability of homesickness will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not so.

“You might worry about creating homesickness, but you’re not creating anything that wasn’t there before,” says Thurber. “The sooner you identify it, the better.”

Another predictor of homesickness is if a boy has little experience away from home: If he rarely goes on overnight trips without his family, he may have trouble adjusting at camp.

A third tip-off: Is the camp culturally different from the Scout’s home life? For example, if he lives in the city, he’s used to hearing cars whoosh by at night — not to hearing crickets and raccoons (or was that a bear?). A boy who is used to sleeping in during the summer and playing Xbox all day may have trouble adjusting to scheduled activities and early morning wake-up calls.

Prepare them for camp
The best way to help kids who show signs of being homesick-prone—and even those who don’t—is to prepare them for the camp experience before trekking into the wilderness. First, Thurber recommends that parents encourage trial separations from home, such as sleepovers at friends’ houses or overnight trips to grandma’s.

Next, leaders should familiarize their Scouts with the camping experience before leaving home to help reduce culture shock.

“Drill down minute by minute,” suggests Michael Lanning, a California estate-planning lawyer and Scoutmaster of 54 years.

“For example, tell them that they’ll get up at 7 a.m., and clean their tent, then they’ll go to breakfast. Let them know when they are scheduled to go to the handicraft area and make a souvenir. And don’t forget to mention the fun they’ll have with skits and songs at the evening campfire.”

In addition, if your Scouts haven’t been physically active and will be hiking several miles every day, get them used to wearing boots and packs before camp.

“You have to take practice hikes,” says Lanning. “Tell the Scouts to break in their boots by wearing them to school. Plan short Saturday jaunts, where the boys walk uphill for half an hour and then back wearing their packs.”

Playing up what the boys can expect at camp can help head off homesickness, says Thurber. Sell your Scouts on going to camp the way you’d sell an adult on a vacation destination. Hand out your local Scout council’s camp brochures that show photographs and list camp activities.

“Boy Scout camps schedule free-time activities that can lessen thoughts of homesickness,” says Lanning. These activities include shooting at the rifle and archery ranges, swimming, and canoeing.

“There’s always an exploration or hike the boys can join. Handicrafts are terrific for homesick Scouts because they can focus on what they are making,” Lanning adds.

Other strategies for coping with homesickness include talking to an adult leader, keeping a journal of fun camp experiences, bringing self-addressed, stamped envelopes from home to write letters to mom and dad, and marking off days on a calendar to show how fast the days at camp are going.

Parents need as much prepping about camp as their sons. Set up a parents meeting a few weeks before camp and explain to them your expectations and how they can help their sons minimize homesickness.

Coach your Scouts’ parents to avoid saying things like, “I don’t know what I’ll do without you,” “I hope I remember to feed your dog,” and “I remember my first camp experience — we ate mystery meat!”

“Tell parents to share the positive things they did at camp as a child,” says Thurber. Did they participate in a skit that had the other Scouts rolling in the aisles? Did they get to lead a song at one of the campfires? Did their troop win the camp-wide scavenger hunt?

Set up a no-call policy
The cell phone is a great invention — except when homesick Scouts use it to stay in contact with their parents.

“Calling home is not a treatment for homesickness,” says Thurber. “Five percent of the phone calls have no effect, and the rest have a deleterious effect.”

Assure parents during the pre-camp meeting that their son may experience some anxiety or sadness, but that he’ll have the support of trusted adults and older Scouts at camp.

“Tell parents you won’t allow their sons to call home,” says Lanning. “Remind them that camp is filled with fun activities, the food isn’t bad, and the boys are not being made to do hard labor.” Reassuring the parents helps them understand and comply with the no-calls rule.

The same goes for pickup deals, like the one Tyler’s parents made at the beginning of this article. This may seem like the best way to assuage a Scout’s homesickness—and relieve mom and dad of guilt feelings—but in reality, making pickup deals can backfire.

The parents think they’re helping, but what the Scout hears is this: “I have so little confidence in your ability to cope with feelings of homesickness that the only solution is for me to come and get you.”

Instead, during your pre-camp meeting, coach parents to tell their child that although they are sure there will be things he’ll miss about home, the practice separations at grandma’s house and information from his Scoutmaster will help him kick homesickness.

Tell parents not to offer to pick up their son if he’s feeling homesick, and reassure them again that trusted adults are ready and willing to help their son over the homesickness hump.

Show your support
Homesick boys need support from older Scouts, the Scoutmaster, and other adult leaders. Thurber and Lanning recommend that homesick Scouts try to make new friends during their free-time activities with boys from other troops.

Thurber says Scouts may be embarrassed to approach the Scoutmaster or other adult leaders about being homesick. That’s why it is important that your boys know homesickness is common and that they can come to you if they’re having trouble adjusting to camp. In addition, Thurber recommends that adults check in with each Scout at least once a day during camp.

“All it takes is a minute of one-on-one conversation to make an individual camper feel important,” Thurber says. “You don’t have to be a psychologist, you just have to be a sensitive, caring adult.”

Lanning recommends a straightforward approach regarding a Scout’s homesickness. “Sometimes I’m very direct—I say, ‘How’s it going?’”

Even better, have a senior patrol leader boost a Scout’s confidence by relaying his own experiences with camp.

“He can tell a Scout that he remembers being homesick at camp—but that he got through it and knows the Scout will, too,” says Thurber.

All this may sound like a lot of work to cure homesickness, but the effort will pay off.

“If you find yourself second-guessing the impact of homesickness,” says Thurber, “remind yourself that by helping Scouts have a good time at camp, it will lengthen their tenure in your troop.

14 thoughts on “How to help Scouts avoid homesickness at summer camp

  1. I recall reading this article in the May-June 2008 Scouting Magazine. This article is another rason for having a no cell phone/electronic policy in Scouting units.
    Holding a yearly information parents night will not only keep make parents aware of the units plans & activities leading up to Summer Camp, but also the policy on personal items their sons will not bring to camp.

  2. Bernie’s mom was a “helicopter” mom. Our Rocky Mountain Council camp in the 1960’s invited parents to come to the Wednesday night campfire. . Bernie and his buddy Ben was overdue from a short hike prior to lunch time to the point that I was kind of worried. Late afternoon found Bernie and Ben wandering in without a care in the world. After chastizing them, I determined they were OK, I told Bernie to NOT mention the incident to his mom if he wanted to stay in camp to the end, knowing she would want to take him home, and he agreed. However he was so full of excitment about the excursion that he blurted it out first thing, and we had the expected results from her. However, Bernie talked her out of it, and we finished the week in good stead. A good memory of the fun that Scouting can be even when things seem to be going bad.

    • Why would you, as a trusted adult, EVER tell a child there was something he should NOT share with a parent?!? That kind of verbage is a warning sign to children of an unsafe adult.

  3. I work at aCub Scout Camp, and we call this “revisitus” ( rev i sigh tus) that way we can cure it. Calling it homesickness validates that going home is the cure. We use friendship bracelets as anti-rev bands as well.

  4. @D.K.Spencer – Do not EVER tell a child to keep a secret from his parent. She may be a helicopter mom, but that is her right. Telling a boy to keep a secret from his parents is a sign of grooming a child for abuse and even though your intentions in this case may be positive, the actions you took are not acceptable.

  5. I am usually the “homesick” adult that the other leaders turn to when the boys wake up at 2 AM on Monday night. We NEVER call home for the boy. I find that if I sit with them and talk to them, ask them questions about home, siblings, relate stories of my childhood, funny things I have done, etc. It usually takes about 15-20 minutes and I always tell them they can come and get me if they need me. Works like a charm everytime.

  6. I get the realization that the “no technology” policies can be a disservice to advancing Scouting in a modern world. The Jambo wifi – with the highest data usage being between 9 and midnight – you want kids facebooking/tweeting/instagramming their experiences. It’s a means to stay relevant in today’s world. If you ask a kid if they have a camera, they’ll show you their phone. These are the realities of today’s world.

    But I also fear kids in crisis having the ability to take it straight home! I can imagine what it would have been like for last years homesick kids to have that kind of access. And the same “helicopter”, over-protective parent would be the ones to make sure they have that kind of access.

    I send out emails to parents with some of the tips advised here, and from other articles I read. To let them know what WE plan on doing, and what they can do to mitigate homesickness. It may happen anyway, but at least it sets the expectation of how we’re going to handle it.

    So I don’t feel I can say NO phones – it punishes the older kids. We know they’re there whether we say so or not – but as long as we don’t see them, and we’re not responsible for them, and it doesn’t impact a scout’s day/participation, I’m good with it. And luckily, it’s the older scouts, and not so much the younger, more prone to homesickness that have phones.

  7. Take your Pack out on regular overnight camp outs each quarter. Not everyone will be able to attend every outing, but over time the CULTURE of your Pack will embrace camp outs. Let Scouts (some Akelas too!) bring a favorite pillow, blanket or stuffed animal – it will ease the pain of separation from home.

    Bears & WEBALOS (Wolves rising to Bears) can be stretched out to 2 night outings with the Pack or sometimes as Spring “invites” from the local Troops whose Den Chiefs (in our Pack) are pretty good at judging when Cub Scouts are ready for the added responsibilities + benefits of several days away.

    By the time we hit Summer Resident camps (4 days/3 nights). Almost all of the Scouts in our Pack have had at least 2+ Camp Outings under their belt. Exception are rising Tigers whom are now allowed to go to Summertime Resident Camp, but have not yet done any time with our Pack during the School Year. The past year we hit the ADVANCEMENT TRAIL at Resident Camp hard & the Scouts were so intent on segments, archery, whittling chips, shooting BB guns, belt loops, dutch oven cooking, pins, knots, swimming, Scout craft, boating and winning the Chief Joe Race (took 2nd) that they didn’t ask me about calling home once.

    Last summer it was put to the test – my son & several of his friends (all in same Den) were all old enough. Went to a YMCA camp and had a blast – taking care of themselves and each other – without a Cubmaster, Den Leader, Camping Chair or Akelas there.

  8. Good article. I spent 8 years on camp staff it amazed me how often kids would be homesick or not feel well when they simply just needed to use the restroom.

    I bet 50% of the kids that showed up at the Med Building in the evening where remedied with being allowed to use the flush toilet as they where not accustomed and afraid of the latrines.

  9. We ask the Scout “When did it start” From 1 to 10 how bad is it. If the Scout says 9, will ask another Scouter near by. “Do we have any Number 9 home sickness punch”? The Scouter will then leave the area, to see if we any. He will come back with the Number 9 home sickness punch. (Sweet Drink)
    The Scout drinks it. Will relate to the Scout are experiences as Scouts, and the level of our own home sickness. All the while we talk about the fun things we did, and how happy we were that we stayed. We ask the Scout if the punch is working yet…. If he says no we give him some more punch. Giving the Scout the (special time) for him to tell us his concerns seems to help more than anything else. As soon as he finds out we relate to way he feels….they get better. Will tell the scout to go back to his patrol…. If gets worse … come back will try to find some 10 home sick punch…. It works!

  10. As a veteran Scoutmaster of over 20 years of summer camp, it was my observation to place one of the older scouts who had the worse homesickness as a Tenderfoot in charge of the Homesickness Chaplain leadership position. Instantly stepping up to the role, these older leaders took pride in the ones they could saved. Good luck!

    • Great idea! The illustrious headmaster of a boarding school for boys 5th-8th grades pointed out one of his older students to visitors as “our professor of homesickness.” Perhaps because he had been through it all himself, he was really gifted at helping any schoolmates who had the problem.

      Don’t you think homesickness is a little like sea-sickness? It’s miserable while it lasts, but once you have survived it, you can go anywhere and the world is your oyster. As a college faculty member, it is disappointing to see how the campus empties out every weekend these days. Students head home in droves regularly, missing many valuable experiences available with a little more commitment to campus life. Because I attended a college in town, it would have saved my parents a lot of money if I just lived at home, but thank heaven they were too smart and caring for that. When they unloaded me at my dorm all of half a mile away, their parting words were, “Don’t come back until Thanksgiving!” And I didn’t. Adapting to campus life was challenging in some ways, but I don’t recall ever being homesick, because I’d gone through it at age 12.

  11. My brother works at a summer camp and if they have any homesick boys they send them off to “find a paperclip”. The staffer tells the boy to go ask another staffer for a paperclip. That staffer instead buys them ice cream and sits and talks with the boy to make him less homesick.

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