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When the Child with Special Needs Goes Off to Summer Camp

By: Rick Lavoie

An LD OnLine Exclusive

Or "I hate this place. I want to come home. Send my iPod. Pat the dog."

For my entire adult life, I toiled in the vineyards of residential special education. I served as a teacher, coach, administrator and Director of residential schools that served children and adolescents with learning disabilities. This intensive experience gave me a unique window into the lives of these kids…and their families.

Upon reflection, I realize now that early in my career, I was fairly insensitive (or, at least, unresponsive to) the needs of families that were "sending their kids away" for the first time. I was unaware of the tremendous impact that the child's absence had on the day-to-day dynamics of a family. I was certainly aware of how greatly the child would miss his family…but was only vaguely cognizant of how deeply the family would miss the child. I understood the logistics of a child's departure from the homefront ("pack plenty of socks, some stamps and extra batteries….") but I did not fully understand the emotionality of it all.

That all changed in 1994 when our oldest son went off to college. Everything changed with his departure. Everything. I missed his upbeat morning greeting ("Hey, Dad. What's up?"). I missed his excited dinnertime recounting of Drama Club rehearsals; I missed the nightly ritual of wishing each other "G'night"; I missed tearing articles of mutual interest from the newspaper and placing them on his bed; I missed…greatly…his company. His temporary departure left a hole.

At that time, I began to gain a greater appreciation and empathy for the families that sent their kids to my school. Everything changes when a child leaves home and parents must design a whole new system of communicating with and caring for the absent child.

If your child is away at camp, you doubtless understand this and are trying to adapt to this situation. Perhaps a suggestion or two would help.

  • When you discuss your child's camp experiences with him (or with others!) be aware of your wording. There is a significant difference between "Billy is away at camp" and "We sent Billy away to camp"
  • Although you have constant day-to-day conversations with your child, you probably have had relatively few telephone conversations with her. You may be troubled to find that your weekly phone calls from camp are stilted, disjointed and somewhat uncomfortable.

    I suggest that you write a brief script prior to each phone call. This sounds very contrived and artificial, but it is actually quite effective. Scribble down a list of topics that you wish to discuss and newsy items you want to share (cousin Trevor's new cat, Frankie's Little League homerun, the new pool toys, the construction on Maple Street, etc.). You will be surprised how interested he will be in this trivia. By making a list, you will avoid lapses and uncomfortable silences.

  • Because your child has language problems, she handles language-based interactions in a different manner than most kids.

    For example, if I were to ask you a direct, specific question ("What's your favorite Late Night talk show?"), you would doubtless respond with a direct, focused answer ("David Letterman"). However if I asked a general, broad questions ("Do you think that the quality of Late Night television has improved or decreased in recent years?")) you would give me a broad detailed response ("Well, in the Johnny Carson days…. and Jay Leno…but Nightline changed the direction of Late Night, etc.").

    Interestingly, this dynamic works in reverse for kids with learning or language problems. If you ask him a general question ("How is camp going?"), you get a short l response ("It's OK"). If you ask a specific question ("How was last night's campfire?") you get a detailed response ("Oh, it was great! Brendan the head counselor taught us a song about Davey Crockett and we made s'mores. Brendan picked me to tell a ghost story and I told the one that Gramps told us about the ghost in the hotel, etc.").

    So you should ask your camper specific questions about specific activities and situations…you'll get much richer and meaningful conversations this way!

  • When it comes to mail, quantity trumps quality every time. At most sleep away camps, distribution of the daily mail is a very important ritual. Every child hopes to get something in the mail everyday. Don't wait until you can write a long, newsy letter. Many working parents develop the habit of keeping a deck of postcards in their offices. On a daily basis, they scribble off a quick note to their camper and put it in the mail. The content of the mail is far less important than the frequency of it!
  • Ask Grandparents, siblings, neighbors and friends to write to your camper on occasion. Kids love knowing that they are missed and that loved ones are thinking about them in their absence.
  • Send family photos to your camper. Kids greatly enjoy sharing these with their new friends.
  • The camping experience can provide the child with an opportunity to better understand the concept of the "support system". Research indicates that your child's success and happiness as an adult will be largely dependent upon her ability to create, nurture and effectively utilize her support system. The child must come to understand how to access this system.

    For example, if your child calls from camp complaining that he has lost his ball glove, gently explain to him that there is precious little that you can do to solve this problem from 200 miles away. Encourage him to access his "camp support system" by discussing the problem with his counselor. It is important that he understands that – as he matures – his support system must extend beyond Mom and Dad.

  • Parents are often troubled when the camper calls with a weekly litany of complaints about the food, his bed, the pool, his bunkmate, etc. Of course, you will want to be sensitive to the child and her needs, but these "complaint calls" are ineffective and often counterproductive because they only serve to further distress the child…and create anxiety for the parents.

    Try this. Tell your camper that he certainly has the right to complain about camp, but establish the rule that "for every complaint you share about camp, you have to tell me about something good that happened and that you enjoyed." This will change the negative nature of the calls.

    Children have told me in the past that they feel that they should complain about camp in order to assure their parents that they miss being home. Assure your camper that you miss the child as well, but that you want to know that the child is happy at camp!

  • Send along a calendar for your camper to post in his room so that he understands when you will be arriving for Parent Day, when he will be returning home, etc. Many kids with learning disorders need visual reminders.
  • One of the greatest challenges you will face is dealing effectively with the child's nearly inevitable bouts of homesickness. A study by the American Camping Association indicates that 90% of campers will have a degree of homesickness…but all but a few kids (5%) develop serious homesickness problems.

    The key to dealing with homesickness is prevention. Prior to the child's departure for camp, be sure that he is included in the process by reviewing brochures, activity schedules, etc. Be upbeat and positive about his departure and pack a "transition object" (e.g., any meaningful reminder of home…a stuffed animal…favorite drinking cup…family photograph). You may want to send a Care Package prior to his departure so that it will be waiting for him when he arrives at camp. You may also ask him to maintain a journal while at camp for a keepsake.

  • Never, ever, ever make a "Bail Out" deal with the child. ("If you don't like it after a week, you can come home.") Parents commonly do this because they assume that the child will love the camp and will want to stay for the entire season.

    Not true. By giving him a "bail out option", the child will have no reason or incentive to "make it work." He will simply be miserable for a week…and return home. Make it clear that this is a three (or four, or five) week experience.

  • You may be confronted with a "rescue call" where the child calls to beg you to take him home. If this occurs, try the following:
    • Remain calm and upbeat. Empathize, but don't sound depressed or overly concerned. Be responsive, but don't mirror his sadness with yours.
    • Tell him about times when you or his siblings were homesick…but survived!
    • Call her counselor to discuss the "rescue call".
    • Don't let the child pressure you into a decision.
  • If the child is not eating, sleeping or is overly anxious, he may have a severe homesickness problem. But, even then, do not immediately bring him home. Sometimes a brief visit from Mom, Dad or a relative can break the homesickness cycle. Try that first.
  • When your child mentions a fellow camper by name, make a note of his friend's name and ask about him in subsequent calls ("How's your bunkmate, Andrew, doing? Did he pass his swim test?"). Kids feel comforted when their "two worlds" intersect?
  • Carefully adhere to the camp's policies regarding "care packages", family visits, etc. Those rules are established for a reason and your child may be singled out or isolated by the other kids if he is viewed as "an exception" of some sort.

Some straight talk

Camping can be a positive, constructive and enjoyable experience for kids with learning problems. They can make new friends in a recreational setting unencumbered by their daily academic challenges. They get a fresh start…away from their classmates who may view them as "different" or "strange".

But the child's departure for camp also proves you and your family a bit of respite. The child with special needs should not be viewed as a "burden" for a family. But, candidly, he may occupy a disproportionate amount of the parents' time, energy and resources.

Use his absence as an opportunity to rekindle your relationship with his siblings…and each other. Go out to dinner. Entertain. Visit friends. Do not feel guilty. Believe me, he is having fun…and so should you.

Take care of each other.

Lavoie, R. (2007). When the Child with Special Needs Goes Off to Summer Camp. Exclusive to LD OnLine.