18 February, 2020 7-12 spotlight

How to help your child manage pre-camp nerves

How to help your child manage pre-camp nerves

Whether your experience of school camp conjures up memories of fun with friends, giggling in tents and being in beautiful natural surrounds, or horror stories of soggy shoes, arduous hikes and pesky mosquitoes, chances are, they are some of your strongest memories of school.  The benefits and rationale of our Exodus program are well-documented; ask any Old Michaelian about their time at St Michael’s and they will most likely regale you with tales of their time spent on Exodus!  Now, more than ever, school camps are crucial opportunities to disconnect from technology, reconnect with nature and build skills of independence, teamwork and friendship.   They are fun and they are, unashamedly, designed to challenge, just as any worthwhile learning program should.

Encountering and overcoming challenge contributes to your child’s resilience and arms them with tools and confidence to face the next unfamiliar situation.  For the naturally adventurous, school camps also play an important role as they can sate their appetite for risk taking in a supportive, controlled environment.  While the more intrepid child might have their bags packed a month in advance and leap onto the bus without so much as a wave, for children who are feeling particularly nervous, this can be a stressful time – for parents also!  The main worries are usually in relation to homesickness, sleeping and food arrangements, friendship concerns and, for girls, managing menstruation while on camp.   If your child is feeling a little nervous, please find some tips below.

Normalise the nerves

Some anxiety about school camp is completely normal so accept how your child is feeling, empathise with them, while maintaining the expectation that they will attend.  Try to delve a little deeper and find out exactly what they are feeling nervous about as there may be something that can be done to alleviate a specific concern.  In an extreme case where your child is requesting to be excused from camp, it can be tempting as parents to accommodate this.  While this might provide some short-term relief for your child (and you!), remember that avoidance can fuel anxiety and actually reinforce their fears.   St Michael’s School Psychologist, Zoe Ganim, cautions that “if we enable our children to stay away from situations that make them nervous, they will miss an opportunity to learn what they are capable of and build their resilience.  It will also make the next time they encounter school camp, or any new situation, even harder.”

Foster independence at home

Prior to camp, find some low-risk ways to foster independence at home, such as handing over the planning and cooking of a weekly meal or two, allowing them to get their uniform or sport gear ready or make their own lunch.  If your child is not used to sleeping away from home, organise some sleep-overs with a close friend or family member.  Prepare for camp together by taking a look at the camp list, going shopping together then let your child take some responsibility for packing their own bag (no one will judge you if you secretly go through it again later!).  Zoe suggests encouraging your child to select an age-appropriate comfort item to take with them, such as a special t-shirt to sleep in or a photo to keep in their bag.

Alleviate their fear of the unknown

For our Year 7s, this might be their first time camping in tents, and being away for five days.  Much of their nervousness will simply be fear of the unknown.  Go through the Outdoor Education SchoL Page together and read all the information, including the activities they will be doing each day.  Have a look at the camp’s website or even visit the Red Hill area on the Mornington Peninsula.  Encourage your child to speak to their House Tutor, Head of House, student House Leaders or the Outdoor Education team about anything from the type of food they will eat to the size of the tents.

How are you feeling, Mum and Dad?

It is important your child feels you believe they are ready for this challenge.  Remind them of another time they have successfully overcome their nerves to have a positive experience.  Share your own stories of when you have done the same.  Do check in with your own emotions and consider whether you are worried about anything in relation to camp, including worrying about your child’s worry!  Zoe reminds us that “anxiety is the fear that something will go wrong. Emotions can be contagious. If you are worried about them going on camp they will pick up in this and worry too. Parents can help calm and comfort their child by remaining calm themselves. Reassure them that although parts of Exodus might be hard at times they will be safe and ok, and you’ll see them when they return. Just like you did when you separated from them on their first day of prep.” Talk positively about the upcoming camp and build their confidence.

Menstruation and school camp

After homesickness, this is probably the biggest concern we encounter in our girls regarding Exodus. If you or child is worried that they might have their period while on camp, it is good to be prepared by packing the appropriate sanitary items.  Encourage your daughter to have a confidential talk with a trusted staff member at school, such as a House Tutor or Head of House.  Enquire after the facilities that will be available at the different campsites so they feel confident their needs can be met while out on the program.  If your daughter requires medication for pain relief, remember to provide this information on the Medical Information Consent Form, available on the Year 7 Exodus, Outdoor Education SchoL Page.  While menstruation is another element to factor into your daughter’s preparation, it certainly doesn’t need to prevent them attending the program.

The night before and the morning of

If your child is nervous about camp, keep in mind that this anxiety will be at its peak the night before and the morning of departure.  In severe cases of last-minute nerves, it is also the time a very anxious child is capable of pulling out some heart-wrenching strategies to avoid getting on the bus!  Somatic complaints such as headaches and nausea are not uncommon, which might add to your child’s worries, that they will be unwell while on camp.   It is important to let them know that these heightened feelings are completely normal and that they will not feel that way for the duration of the camp.  If you already have some strategies up your sleeve to calm your child, such as breathing exercises or a relaxation app, it is a good time to use them.  On the morning of camp, Zoe recommends taking your child through the morning’s routine one step at a time.  “Creating a ‘drop-off’ plan is a good idea, such as arranging to meet a friend at the school gate and deciding in advance on whether mum or dad will stay until the bus departs.  You could also plan with them who they might sit next to on the bus and what they might talk about on the way so they can visualise and have a sense of control over the journey.”
If you think you child might need some additional support to allay their nerves, please get in touch with their House Tutor, Head of House or Outdoor Education team.

This article was written by Ms Emma McDonald, Director (7-9).

Please find some additional resources below, including a link to the Outdoor Education SchoL Page:

Year 7 Exodus Overview

Quirky Kid Psychology Clinic: Anxiety

Beyond Blue: Strategies to support anxious children

Melbourne Child Psychology: Feeling positive about school camp