Jodi Woodnick with sons

Jodi at camp last summer with her sons Adrian, left, and Ean.

As holiday decorations come down all around us and we settle into frigid mornings and shorter days, most people are thinking about getting back to “real” life. Me? I’m thinking about next summer and the millions of kids who will be attending sleepaway camp, many for the first time.

I think (and talk) about camp all year, to anyone willing to listen. I am a therapist who works with kids and families, and I have a front-row seat to the struggles that kids face today: too anxious to try something new, struggling with friendships, with self-confidence, turning into puddles in the face of adversity… the list goes on. But don’t worry, there’s good news. I am also the director of community care at Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps in California, and I have a front-row seat to the myriad ways in which sleepaway camp has the potential to help children fight against these struggles… if we allow it.

Allowing a sleepaway camp experience to work for your child will take some mental and emotional preparation. It starts with asking, “What do I want my child to get out of a sleepaway camp experience?” Most people say, “gain independence,” “make friends” and “have fun.” I am going to challenge you to hope for more. Camp has the potential to provide vital social and emotional skills that can benefit your child for life. My favorites are practicing problem-solving, flexibility and empathy, learning how to fail and discovering what matters in a friendship. All these things, and more, are possible.

Here are some things you can do to help:

1. Pick the right camp for your child

Does the camp have a clear mission? Do the camp’s mission and culture align with your values? (For example, if the camp is religious, but your child hasn’t had much exposure to religion, will they feel comfortable? If the camp’s programming is heavily sports oriented but your child doesn’t like competition, will they find common ground with other campers? Will your LGBTQ+ child feel accepted and valued?) Is the camp team responsive and communicative? Does the camp have programming to address your child’s unique needs? These questions and more are what you should consider as you search for the perfect camp.

Also, while it can be helpful to talk to others to gather information, please do not base your decision on who else is going. If you can find a program that meets your child’s needs, they will thrive. Sending your child to a camp that is not a good fit just because a specific friend or neighbor is doing the same is a set-up for failure.

2. Consider your child’s age

For a typical child, starting camp at age 8-10 is ideal but kids can be successful starting at any age. If you end up starting your child at age 11 or older, just prepare for a slightly longer adjustment period than for that of a younger child. Also, older children tend to be more self-conscious about feelings associated with adjusting to camp and may therefore be less likely to open up to cabin mates or counselors.

3. If you want your child to go, just sign them up

When asked, most of us (especially kids) will reject the unfamiliar. If sending your child to sleepaway camp is important to you, it’s ok to simply tell your child they’re going. Just like you wouldn’t give them a choice about going on a family vacation or to a loved one’s celebration, you do not have to give them a choice about camp.

4. Communicate openly and honestly (and early) with the camp about your child’s behavioral, emotional and/or academic challenges

Many parents think that because camp is “fun” extreme behaviors and emotions that happen at school won’t materialize at camp. Unfortunately, the opposite is often true. Camp is a highly structured environment where every waking moment has social, emotional and/or behavioral demands. Many camps have mental health professionals on staff to work together with parents, counselors (and your child’s teachers/therapists, if necessary) to create and supervise comprehensive accommodation plans (see step 1). The more prepared the camp is for your child, the better their chances for success. Withholding vital information (or sharing it at the very last moment) only sets your child up for failure.

On a related note, please don’t change or stop your child’s medications during camp. Camp, while magical and transformative, can also be stressful. Dealing with changes to medications while adjusting to camp life may add to stress.

5. In the months leading up to camp, provide opportunities for your child to practice independence and self-advocacy

Although there is plenty of support, sleepaway campers need to be able to help themselves in many ways. They should be able to shower without assistance, serve themselves food, be able to identify their own belongings and put their dirty clothes in a laundry bag. They will even be expected to make their bed. Have your child practice as many of these things as you can at home before camp. It will significantly reduce their stress if they don’t have to learn all of this for the first time while also learning the ropes at camp.

More importantly, sleepaway campers need to be able to advocate for themselves. Counselors, while fabulous, are not mind readers. Give your child opportunities to use their voice and witness firsthand the power of self-advocacy. Let them order for themselves in restaurants, ask a store clerk for help, ask the teacher a question or tell a friend what’s bothering them. This practice will help them to communicate when and if they need help at camp and parents aren’t there to speak for them.

6. Get comfortable with discomfort

The first time they go to camp, most children will experience some nervousness. They may even cry or have trouble sleeping at first. As difficult as this is, know that this is the kind of discomfort that leads to growth. Working through discomfort now will set your child up for working through adversity throughout their life; on the playground, at the choir performance, their first break up, college. This might sound hyperbolic, but it couldn’t be truer.

You can help by normalizing homesickness, and helping your child come up with a plan for how they will deal with it when and if it does happen. Who at camp can they talk to? What are some things they can do to help themselves fall asleep or calm themselves down (breathing exercises, etc.)?

As departure day gets closer, and nervousness intensifies, you may feel tempted to negotiate with your child to get them on the bus, saying things like, “If you don’t like it after three days, I’ll come pick you up.” Please do not do that. There is nothing worse you can say if you want your child to fully engage. Now they know they don’t have to.

Meanwhile, prepare yourself for letters that may be alarming, that feel desperate. Don’t panic. If that happens, call the camp to discuss strategies and options. The camp is your partner in supporting your child and their success at camp.

7. Trust the camp

You researched, attended meetings and spoke to staff. You chose this camp for a reason. Now let them do what they do best. When you do things like setting up secret codes with your child for the camp photos, sneaking covert cell phones into their luggage or questioning staff on opening day about bunk requests, you send the message that the camp can’t be trusted with your child’s best interest. If you don’t trust the camp, why should your child?

Yes, sending your child away to someone else’s care is a leap of faith and that is scary for any parent. Your camp does not take your faith in them for granted. Partner with them.

8. Trust your child

In the end, your child needs to know that you genuinely believe that they can do it. Even if it’s hard, even if it’s scary, they can do it. The way I see it, scary just means something great is about to happen. JN

Jodi Woodnick is a child, adolescent and family therapist with Out of the Woods Counseling in Scottsdale ( Prior to her current role with WBT Camps, she was the director of Camp Charles Pearlstein in Prescott (now Camp Daisy and Harry Stein) from 2002-2012.