TUESDAY, Jan. 2, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- It's usually mild and typically temporary, but homesickness can turn summer camp into a struggle for countless kids each year. Now, a new report suggests steps parents can take to help prepare their children for extended stays away from home.
And, the advice is applicable to not only children heading to summer camp, but those bound for boarding school or facing extended hospitalization, the study authors said.
Among the suggested measures, parents can involve their children in the process of choosing a camp, give them opportunities to practice being on their own ahead of time, and decline to take them from camp during initial periods of stress.
Tips like these could help the estimated one in five children who suffer symptoms of homesickness while at camp, according to report co-author Christopher A. Thurber, a clinical psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy, a boarding school in New Hampshire.
"There are 12 million kids who go away to camp, and if 20 percent aren't having a good experience, and it's interfering with the growth and development that's supposed to occur during that experience, isn't that worthy of intervention?" he said.
Thurber, who himself went to summer camp as a child, has been studying homesickness since the 1990s. He said the phenomenon has been around since ancient times and was discussed by Hippocrates and mentioned in the biblical book of Exodus.
At summer camp, severe homesickness can affect seven percent of kids. "They're tearful, they're withdrawn, it's difficult for them to eat and sleep and participate in activities," Thurber said. "Kids have three jobs at camp: Eat, sleep and play. Kids who are severely homesick have trouble doing all three of those things."
Homesickness at summer camp is a problem not only because of its symptoms, but because it robs children of a valuable experience away from home, Thurber said. Recent research has confirmed what Thurber calls the conventional wisdom of the last 150 years -- "a couple weeks at camp does boost kids' independence and self-esteem and helps them be adventurous and develop some self-reliance," he said.
So, what can parents do to head off homesickness? The new report, published in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics, provides a number of tips based on previous research:
For starters, make sure your child is part of the decision-making process regarding summer camp. "Ensure that kids get to take part in the decision about when to go to camp, what kind of camp to go to and how long to stay," Thurber said. "It's important that kids feel part of the process."
Give your kids a chance to practice being away from home, perhaps through a weekend stay at a grandparent's house or a sleepover at a friend's home, he said.
Don't promise to pick up your child early if he or she gets homesick. That's the "biggest mistake" parents can make, Thurber said. "Nothing will cause a kid to be preoccupied more about home than the idea that they can go home."
Also, "maintain predictability" about camp, as the report put it. Use a wall calendar at home to show that the time spent at camp won't be an "eternity."
Published research involving several hundred children attending summer camps found that these and other strategies reduced homesickness by about one-half, Thurber said.
These strategies make sense to Joy Faini-Saab, a professor in the department of educational theory and practice at West Virginia University.
"Communication before, during and after the experience is really important," she said. "Help prepare the child for the experience in detail, feelings they may have, how the feelings may get better once they get involved in the experience, and what to look forward to upon returning."
And, once a child does return home, spend some quality time with him or her, Faini-Saab said. "Sometimes just reading next to each other, or watching a favorite movie, or taking a walk together will help reconnect the parent and child after the separation," she said.
To learn more about summer camp and handling homesickness, visit aboutourkids.org.