How Kid Campers Can Manage the Pressure to Fit In?

I’m sure many children out there are looking forward to summer to have fun and relaxation. What an exciting feeling it is to join a summer camp too, especially if they’re going to a place outside, or even more so, to another country.

Of course, your kid won’t be alone on the adventure. Other boys and girls will be sharing the experience with your child. As much as we want kids to enjoy themselves, there will be instances that they will feel left out or pressured to fit in. To prep up kids and parents alike on what to do and expect in such cases, Dr. Marc Murphy, clinical psychologist at  United Family Healthcare, shares his insights.

How would you help a child camper who’s feeling strong pressure to fit in?
Almost everyone has a desire to fit in as we are social beings. However, it might be good to have an age appropriate conversation with your child about expectations, and the pros and cons of fitting in. Expectations will influence your camper’s mood. If your child expects to fit in perfectly, that will be a challenge. Fitting in may involve expecting your camper to behave in a way that is against your family’s value system. Emphasize that it is okay to say no; practice scenarios where the peer group expects your camper to bully or pick on someone. Ask your child how they would handle it. The best thing a parent can do is help their child problem solve rather than tell them how to do it.

Dale Carnegie, author of the best-selling self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People, said that you will gain more friends in a month by focusing on learning about others by asking questions, than you will gain in two years by trying to impress others. I would support this strategy for a camper who might fear they will struggle to fit in. Ask tons of questions about what interests others have, what their school is like, their family, hobbies and passions. If your child asks a lot about these from others, hopefully they will also ask your camper. If they do not, your son or daughter will learn about opportunities to join in with similar situations they have experienced.

Or others who can’t fit in at all?
It may be that some camps and campers are not the best fit and that socially there is not a good connection. Emphasize to your child that sometimes this happens, but go back to the discussion about expectations. Ask your child about how to prepare in this “worst case scenario.” (Note: the worst case scenario does not involve being harmed, but do have a conversation about personal safety and what to do if your child feels vulnerable.) When you help them through being able to cope with a difficult situation where they feel like they don’t fit in, and your child realizes they can cope with it, knowing this tends to help reduce anxiety (for both the camper and the parent).

Alternatively, it may be good to teach them how to ask camp leaders if they could be helpers. Sometimes this is a good way to be excused from some of the awkward social situations while connecting with a counselor and contributing.

Aside from homesickness, what other stress factors and issues affect kids’ well-being at overseas summer camps?
For first-time campers going overseas it might be good to help your child with some potential “culture shock” expectations. For example, have they ever eaten cafeteria style? Bussed their own food, eaten with a fork? You would not want your child made fun of for eating certain foods with a spoon that everyone else eats with a fork.

Another question will be to ask in advance about the sleeping and bathroom arrangements. Will your camper be sleeping in bunk beds with just a few campers, or will they be in a large room with many campers? Sometimes first time campers are not used to trying to sleep with other kids still talking, snoring, or in noisy or very dark sleeping conditions. Also, will the showers be private or public? For campers unaccustomed to showering in a group this may be initially awkward.

One aspect of camps that some find reassuring but others find a stressor is the routine: breakfast, lunch and dinner at standard times no matter how hungry you are, although many provide small snacks or fruit at any time. Activities are also structured and there might not be a lot of “down time”. If your child is accustomed to a very busy schedule, it may seem like there is a lot of down time and adjusting to this is a stress. Kids feel bored or like they should be doing something. Be sure to include a book or two that your camper could read if these bored times come up.

Also, be sure to check with the camp as to their electronic device policy. Some camps do not allow computers (they worry about theft) and some do not allow phones. If your child is unaccustomed to unplugging, it would be good to prepare for this in advance.

What can parents (and school organizers) do in advance to address those stress factors/issues?
Length of the camp can be something difficult to prepare for campers, parents, and schools. Two weeks is relatively easy to deal with, but 4-6 weeks takes a discussion about expectation management. Try to help your child recall experiences where they have dealt with a long holiday, summer, or other experiences where they had to pace themselves and how to recognize points along the way as markers towards the finish line.

Some common stress factors include jetlag. A good way to cope with jetlag is to try to simulate your new time zone before you leave. You may want to get up very early for 1-2 days and try to simulate the new time zone on the flight over. The first day of arrival at your destination get out in the sunlight as much as possible. Sunlight helps your body absorb many vitamins and nutrients that are important for sleep regulation, and the sunlight itself will help reset the biological clock. Eat according to the new time zone schedule, some say your biological clock is determined by your stomach. And of course, stay hydrated.

Other stress factors can come up unexpectedly, it is hard to touch on them all and some may require more than a few tips of advice. So, make sure your son or daughter knows that it is okay to see the nurse at the camp to talk about fears and worries. Usually the nurse is a parent as well and has seen these concerns before and likely will be able to lend a sympathetic ear as well as some good counsel.

What’s your advice for children who’ll do overseas camping for the first time?
Similar to number one, but especially for first time campers, help them get into the habit of recognizing something they are grateful for on a daily basis. I recommend to many families to have a “Grateful Board” in the house where each family member writes down something unique they are grateful for each day. The rules: no repeats, can be big or small, best is when they relate to overcoming a challenge, not just the good things that happened that day.

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