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Unpacking Summer

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Ending summer and starting school may present as significant challenges for young people of all ages. This may be especially the case for those who participated in experiential learning programs, such as summer camp, during June, July or August.

Indeed, after the last activity has ended, the last marshmallow has roasted, the last sunset has sunk, and the last tear has dried, the aftermath of a summer at camp often reveals itself in, well, less than expected ways. Of course, there’s the “afterglow” of positive memories: friends, achievements and awards. But there may be something else – a pervasive sense of loss that may surprise even the most empathic campers and mystify their unsuspecting parents, who don’t always understand the degree of difficulty in transitioning back to life at home. No more sand in the sheets, spiders in the sink, or cabins to share … what could be so bad?

No more sand in the sheets, spiders in the sink, or cabins to share. And no more round-the-clock roommates to make it all such fun!

While the American Camp Association (ACA) offers a treasure trove of information for camp professionals and parents to help homesick campers, less common are resources that guide young people and families on how to deal with the opposite: campsickness.

As is the case with separation from the comforting, nurturing routines of home – not to mention the support and affection of family members – exiting the camp community can elicit many of the same feelings of sadness and loss. Paradoxically, these emotions may be most intense among older kids, who are suddenly cognitively capable of abstract thinking – delving deeper into their emotional world – and more focused on peer relationships than are their younger campmates. And these strong feelings may emerge regardless of the length of the campers’ stay.

How do those emotions manifest themselves? I asked two student members of the National Advisory Board at the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), each a current teen leader at the Cape Cod Sea Camps in Brewster, Massachusetts. Here’s what they have to share.

Thomas Wiener, 17, says that this is the hardest thing about the end of the camp season: “Leaving the people, the community and the active lifestyle.” He goes on to explain, “The community and the people are a part of who I am so, in that sense, losing (temporarily) a piece of myself is difficult.”

For his part, 15-year-old Charlie Nicholas offers, “The goodbyes are very difficult for me. I hate not seeing people I care about for a year. Towards the end of the summer, even the simple things seem more interesting.”

In many ways, what these youth are talking about is a process of grieving famously outlined in stages by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. They follow.

  1. Denial: This can’t be happening to me.
  2. Anger: Why is this happening? Who is to blame?
  3. Bargaining: Make this not happen, and in return I will …
  4. Depression: I’m too sad to do anything.
  5. Acceptance: I’m at peace with what happened.

Dr. Kübler-Ross did not intend to suggest that each of these stages is experienced by every adult or child dealing with loss, or even that they occur chronologically. Rather, these are reactions one should be familiar with so that he or she understands the emotional reactions to separation – say, leaving the close confines of summer camp – are normal, predictable and helpful in “healing.”

While the Kübler-Ross stages of grief and loss have been widely debated, even criticized, they do resonate as intuitive responses to difficult partings, regardless of age or specific circumstances.

Sound melodramatic? Perhaps, but the sadness many young people feel at the end of camp is real and reflective of a summer filled with close friendships and personal growth. ACA says, “At camp, when children make new friends, explore the world around them, and learn that ‘I can’ is much more powerful than ‘I can't’, magic happens. In an environment created just for them, children learn real life skills, develop self-esteem, and gain a sense of independence and community. Whether children are playing, exploring nature, conquering new heights, or becoming part of a camp family, they are creating memories that will last a lifetime.”

What strategies do the campers use to cope?

Charlie says, “I tend to remember what fun I had and what I achieved during the summer,” while Thomas explains, “I try to catalog things in my memory as they happen so that I have vivid and distinct memories to look back on.”

Parents, too, can help or hinder the process of withdrawal. Thomas, who enjoys sharing his camp experiences, finds it helpful when his parents ask questions about his summer, while Charlie advises not asking too many questions or “pushing” schoolwork right away.

Other strategies are recommended by Anne Henningfeld, MA, CTRS, and Dayana Kupisk, MS, in a 2016 Camping Magazine article about both homesickness and campsickness. Essentially, they advise that “transitional objects” can smooth both transitions by reconciling one experience (home) with the other (camp) and vice versa.

They state that such objects “create a bridge between the children’s camp experience and their home life. This can take many forms: an item from a camp traditions ceremony, a lanyard made in arts and crafts, or a handmade gift from a cabin mate. A camp transitional object may even emerge … in the form of a perceptual experience such as a song or a campfire. Camp transitional objects are a necessary part of assisting campers, especially those with difficult lives outside of camp, to maintain their best camp selves in the real world.”

So, sending a child or teen to camp with objects of meaning from home can help prevent homesickness and welcoming objects of meaning from camp at home can ease the burden of campsickness.

As young people and their families begin the elongated process of unpacking summer, it’s important that they have a social-psychological framework in which to consider the suddenly strong emotions that come with separation and loss. Equally important, they must work collaboratively toward a successful adjustment and start of the school year.

*A portion of this article appeared previously in the 2012 January/February edition of Camping Magazine.

Stephen Gray Wallace's picture

Stephen Gray Wallace, M.S. Ed., is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing favorable youth outcomes and reducing risk. He is a consultant to summer camps on staff training and teen leadership programming and has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. Stephen is a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association. Additional information about Stephen’s work can be found at