First time away from home

A little prep can make your child’s first trip go smoothly

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John had never been away from his family for an overnighter, but the summer he was nine, a friend invited him to come to the cottage for the weekend. “He was ready,” says his dad, Terry Noble. As John packed his bags and headed out the door, he was excited. “I think we were more anxious about it than he was,” says Noble. “He had a great time — no problems at all.”

Noble thinks part of the reason John did so well on his first trip away from his family was that he knew the lake where his friend’s cottage was. “There was the sense that this was familiar territory, and I think that helped him feel more comfortable.”

Jacob Rodenburg has lots of experience shepherding kids through their first extended stay away from home. He’s the executive director of Camp Kawartha, near Lakefield, Ont. “We encourage parents and kids to see this as a rite of passage, a big step in a child’s life. When they are successful, it can be very empowering.”

Whether your child is heading off to camp or on an adventure with another family, here are some ways to prepare:

Model a positive attitude

When parents are enthusiastic and optimistic, chances are kids will be too. Avoid saying things like “You can always come home if you want to,” advises Rodenburg.

Picture it

Kids may be anxious because the experience is going to be strange and different from their usual routine. Parents can help by walking kids through it. What is the place like? Who will be there? What will she be doing during the day? Many of Rodenburg’s campers come for a sneak preview visit. If that’s not possible, he recommends looking at pictures, maps and schedules online. Some camps also offer info sessions for families where kids can ask questions and meet the staff. Bring something from home. A few photographs, a favourite blanket or a stuffed animal help kids feel connected to home.

Have a practice run

If he’s never done a sleepover away from home before, make sure one happens before his trip. An overnighter at his friend’s house down the street before a week at their cottage getaway will give him a chance to get comfortable.

Maintain routine

What if, despite your best efforts, he’s homesick? “Feeling lonely for home and family is a natural part of growing up, and something pretty much everyone experiences at one time or another,” says Rodenburg, who believes that it has an important developmental role to play. “It’s part of the transition from being a dependent child to a more independent person who is confident and self-reliant.” The vast majority of kids overcome it pretty quickly because they’re having so much fun and making new friends.

Whether kids are at camp or a friend’s cottage, bedtime is likely to be the most difficult time. In Rodenburg’s experience, a routine helps. At camp it involves singing and exchanging highlights of the day. If your child is going to be away with friends, letting your child’s hosts know about your household routines can help them provide a similar one.

If kids are feeling homesick, it doesn’t help to encourage them to forget about it. Rodenburg suggests kids write a short note home expressing how they’re feeling. Distraction works wonders too. “Sometimes changing activities changes the mood,” says Rodenburg.

Be supportive

While parents should be optimistic, they should also be prepared for their kids to bail out — and support their decision to do so. If this is your child’s first solo venture, it’s probably best not to make plans to be away or unreachable yourself.

Rodenburg says it doesn’t happen very often but, occasionally, he’ll have a camper who is simply too homesick to stay at camp. If a child has no appetite, has trouble sleeping, doesn’t want to take part in activities, is very weepy or wants to hide from other people for more than a few days, Rodenburg calls the parents. “We tell the kids they may not be quite ready to be away from home. But they can try again next time.”

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