Preparing your child for sleep-away camp

When summer rolls around, many parents prepare to send their children to sleep-away camp. Before making a decision on a camp, though, you should consider what kind of camping experience will benefit both your child and family. 

Jonathan A. Slater, MD, associate clinical professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Columbia University in New York, offered this advice on how parents can prepare their child—and themselves—for this summertime adventure.

Ask plenty of questions: How does my child feel about going away? Has he or she handled previous sleep-away experiences well? What do other people who know my child outside the home—teachers, mentors or coaches—think about the idea? Understand that a child's age is less important than his or her emotional and temperamental makeup (although most camps have a minimum age of 10).

Make sure your child will enjoy the camp's activities, which vary greatly and often focus on particular areas, such as competitive sports, nature studies or the arts.

Gather as much information as possible. For example, review camp videotapes, meet with camp directors and counselors, ask friends and neighbors how their children enjoyed camps you are considering, and, if possible, visit the campsite itself. Once you've chosen a camp, write letters to the counselors describing your child's temperament and the activities he or she likes.

Monitor your own separation-anxiety level. Try not to make your anxiety too evident, because children tend to feed off their parents' fears. You can take some comfort in that you have fully researched and chosen what you consider to be the best camp. Once your child is away, avoid initiating contact; if need be, talk to the camp director or a counselor to see how your child is faring.

Many camps offer special services to children with just about any type of physical, medical, emotional, or psychological disability or need. One question to ask is whether a camp that exclusively provides special services to children with special needs is preferable to a camp that has a more inclusive, mainstream setting.

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