Summer is here and for many kids, that may mean sleep away camp or sleepovers at a friend’s or grandparent’s house.

But what about the anxious child? How can we help them enjoy this experience and alleviate some of their anxious fears?

Summer Camp and Anxiety

First, let me say, I would not force. If a child truly wants to do a camp or a sleepover, then I absolutely will help them.

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But, not every child has to do every thing.

It’s ok if a child doesn’t want to do a sleepaway camp or sleepover, and should not be forced just because their siblings do it.

Or, because you did it as a child.

smores at summer camp

These are some of the internal biases we have to overcome when parenting a disabled child. Viewing the world from a different lens.

If a child has FOMO (fear of missing out) and wants to do an activity, but they know their anxiety is getting in the way, there are some things we can do as parents.

Can Summer Camps Help with Anxiety?

Sure! Of course it can. It can also create setbacks, which is why your decision needs to be well thought out.

When kids try and accomplish new things, that can do wonders to increase a child’s self esteem. They may find a new hobby or activity they enjoy, or become more proficient at an existing hobby.

The key is to know your child, their triggers for anxiety, and set them up for success.

Summer Camp Anxiety

  1. Pick the right camp. Do as much research online as you can, as far as what will be happening at this summer camp. Discuss those activities with your child. Make sure that the daily activities are a good fit for them, and that this is something they want to do. Choose a summer camp that has a summer camp theme that resonates with your child.
  2. Talk about social anxiety. It’s likely they will not know anyone at this camp, unless you and another parent have gotten together about this ahead of time. How does your child do meeting new kids and making friends? What supports do they need to be successful? Ask the camp if this is possible.
  3. Discuss homesickness. Everyone gets homesick, even Moms and Dads on business trips. Discuss these feelings and what it might look like while they are there. I would not give them the option of “I will pick you up anytime, just say the word!” You can relay this message to camp staff, that if the child is completely unable to cope and needs to be picked up, you will. Make sure they know their own de-escalation tactics when they feel anxiety coming on.
  4. Discuss eating and sleeping. The concept of group living (sleeping, eating, playing, and staying together) can be fun, different and contribute to personal growth. Focus on the excitement in experiencing new things, rather than what will be different about their waking routine at camp. Kids are surprisingly resilient sometimes. But still prepare them for the changes!
  5. Raise food concerns. This can be the most challenging daily change, especially for kids who are picky eaters or have food challenges like ARFID. I would not put any pressure on the child that you would not do at home. Sending them off with a mindset of “well, if he’s hungry, he’ll eat” is an outdated practice. No, they won’t! Some kids will not eat, no matter how hungry they are. Talk about viewing options and making choices in dining halls, and the availability of snacks.
  6. Consider a day camp. Some day camps have a week of day camp, then the last day is a sleepover, so, just one night. That might be a good option to get started. Or, things like “sleep ins” at youth centers and YMCAs. Some places call them “lock ins” and I used to chaperone them when I was in college.
  7. Everyone is Like THEM. Dr. Phil has a saying that goes “You wouldn’t worry so much about what people thought of you, if you really knew how infrequently they do.” So true! Social anxiety can really mess with your head and make you think people are thinking about you and judging you. But, most are not. And, in the teen/tween world, many kids are having the same anxious thoughts and hangups as we are. If your child is nervous about going away overnight, remind them that everyone is nervous and has the same concerns.
  8. Consider a trial run. Hey, you can always rent a cabin somewhere for the weekend, grab a few kids and go! This will give your child a preview of what camp will be like, in a safer, no risk environment.

Summer Sleepovers

Of course kids do sleepovers during the school year, but they often happen more frequently during summer.

I would apply the same tips as above, with a few additions.

  • You can talk with the parent or relative who is hosting your child. You are able to tell them your child’s specific quirks and needs. This is a lower risk environment, rather than having 100 campers to look after.
  • I absolutely would not send my child into a hostile situation. What I mean by this–when my Dad was alive, he was very “old school” about picky eating. Both my sons have ARFID, and one or two actions from my Dad would have set them back months in their progress. Things like forcing them to eat something, not giving them options, etc. There are other reasons why my kids never spent the night there (unlocked guns being one of them), but if you think a relative is going to overstep their bounds with something they may say or do with your child, pass. This could be a hyperinterest, their sensory needs, lack of traditional social skills, whatever.
  • You can consider hosting it at your house.

Social Anxiety and Summer Camp

There are some specific, therapeutic camps that help kids with social anxiety or anxiety.

Ask your child’s medical team if they have any recommendations. Or, when all else fails, research online.

Summer Growth in Skills

Summer is great time for kids to get some downtime and regroup for the next school year.

It can also be a great time to acquire and build new skills in a lower-risk environment.

Keep your child involved, your options open…and have fun!

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