A Westport girl wrote her parents from sleepaway camp.
“I love camp so far,” she said. “I’m having conflicts with a bunkmate. I’m playing so much soccer and basketball. It’s great!”
The mother’s reaction: Anxiety, misery and sadness.
She focused on the second line. But it was sandwiched in between other, much more positive comments.
More importantly: Conflicts are a normal part of growing up. They’re how we learn to navigate the world. And there’s no better place to learn those lessons than independently, at camp, away from parental interference.
Plus this: The girl did not ask her mother to help.
“Trust her,” Tracy Brenner says. “She loves camp.”
Tracy knows. A former camper and counselor — and daughter of a camp director — she’s also a licensed psychologist, in private practice here.
She knows the value of sleepaway camp for kids. She knows youngsters thrive there.
And she knows — particularly in these days of instant access to all kinds of information — that parents worry constantly that they won’t.
“Camp is a bubble,” Dr. Brenner says — a place far different from home, with all its distractions and expectations (and technology). Parents send their children to that bubble because they want them to grow, mature, make friends and memories, and be happy.
Those are great reasons for children to go to camp. But, Tracy notes, there may be people there they don’t like. Activities they don’t care for. Food that isn’t fantastic.
So that bubble is just like real life.
“Whether you send your kid to camp for 7 weeks or 3 weeks, think about yourself,” Dr. Brenner advises.
“When in your life have you been consistently happy for 7 weeks, or even 3?” she asks rhetorically.
“It doesn’t happen. Kids can’t be happy all the time either. That’s okay!”
One of the magic parts of the camp experience, she emphasizes, is that boys and girls learn to solve those less-than-perfect parts of life on their own.
Back in the day, parents worried — and sometimes read between the lines — only when they got a letter from their child.
Now — with daily photos on camp websites, group chats with bunkmates’ parents, and a general heightened anxiety over children’s safety, coupled with societal pressures to ease every bump in a youngster’s journey — the opportunities to worry are exponentially greater.
If a child writes “I miss you,” Tracy says, the instinct today is to call the camp director, to make sure the child is okay.
Slow down, the psychologist advises.
“It’s okay for kids to miss parents,” she says. “They love you.”
If a child calls home and cries on the phone, that’s natural too: “They haven’t heard your voice in a while.”
And, Tracy continues, remember why you chose that particular camp: You liked the director, the staff, the activities, the values.
Trust that decision.
(There may be something else going on, Dr. Brenner adds. “Maybe those photos bring up a parent’s anxieties about their own friendships.”)
“Your child is learning to experience the full range of emotions without you there,” she repeats. “That’s a good thing. And it’s why you sent them to camp.”
The psychologist offers a few steps to help parents manage their anxiety.
First, “notice and name your emotion. Say to yourself (or out loud): ‘I’m worried my child may be unhappy.'”
Next, “have compassion for your feeling.” That means: “My child is away from home. It’s okay to worry.”
After that, Tracy advises, “Slow down. Step back. Look at the context.” For example, letters are written during “down time” — not when kids are out playing, swimming or canoeing.
Then, she says, “Remind yourself: If something is really wrong, the director will call.”
But, she adds, the director should be able to spend most of his or her time outside, with kids” — finding out if something is wrong — rather than replying to frantic emails and texts because in one photo, a child stands apart from his group, or is not linked arm in arm like the other girls.
Dr. Brenner has one final thought: “It’s a privilege and a luxury to send a child to camp — and to have those worries.”
Just as it is a privilege and a luxury to have a psychologist like her to explain how to let those worries go.
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