This will be my first blog post in a series of blog posts about my experiences as a counselor at camp twitch and shout! I am so blessed to have been able to come back as a counselor for my second year and I can't wait to go back next year! I have so many campers who made me pinkey promise to come back again next year as a counselor and I completely intend to keep my word!!
The first thing I want to talk about in this series, is homesickness. Homesickness is one of the first things that counselors and staff will encounter at camp regardless of the age group of the campers. I have always been with the older girls at camp, but even though they are older this does not mean they will not experience homesickness at the beginning of the week. On a similar level, the older children especially might experience "camp sickness" when they get back home. The kids experience very complicated emotions during the week of camp. They love and cherish the opportunity to come to camp twitch and shout and to be with so many people who know exactly what it's like to live with Tourette's, but at the same time they may miss the familiar and safe home environment that they are used to. Even returning campers who have been coming to camp for years are not immune to homesickness. Kids with Tourette's will often have more anxiety, so this makes homesickness even more prominent and distressing for a lot of TS kiddos.
Over the course of my two years as a counselor at camp, I have had quite a few of my older campers experience homesickness. Some of the first signs that a camper may be experiencing homesickness are not wanting to talk to other campers, wanting to stand or sit very close to a particular counselor who they feel comfortable with, and/or hanging back from the group. As a counselor what I do when I see these signs is I asses the situation and when the time is right (usually during a quiet and calm time of day), I ask them a neutral question such as "How is everything going?" or "How are you doing?" to give the camper the opportunity to open up to me about their emotions or thoughts. The camper may not want to talk about their homesickness or may in fact just be tired, so if they say they are fine or don't want to talk about it, don't push them. If they need to, they will talk to you when they are ready.
I feel so honored when a camper comes to me with difficulties they may be experiencing. Although it may be hard a first to see them experimenting difficult emotions, especially because it reminds me of exact emotions I dealt with at the same age, when they open up to me I know it means they trust me and feel comfortable with me. I also know that I have the opportunity to help them feel better and to get the most out of their week at camp.
A lot of times though the camper may be waiting for an opportunity to open up about their feelings to their counselor. They'll open up and express their feelings, especially if you give off a warm and accepting demeanor towards all of your new campers and campers from previous years that you may see around camp. In my experience, when a new camper sees that you as a counselor have strong bonds and relationships with other campers around camp, they are more likely to trust you and feel safe with expressing to you any difficulties that they may be dealing with.
When a camper opens up to you about their homesickness they may start crying. Older campers especially may express that they feel embarrassed that they are homesick and embarrassed that they are crying in front of someone who they look up to. The embarrassment about their tears and homesickness combined will certainly increase their anxiety and distress in general. So, before you can even address their underlying homesickness, I have found that the best thing to do is to normalize their feelings. Let your camper know that it's normal even for older campers to miss home and that it's okay to cry. Something else i've been able to do to normalize their feelings is to let them know that when I was their age and away from home I experienced homesickness as well. It seems to really help them to hear that their counselor, someone who they look up to, has experienced the same thing.
After their feelings have been normalized, another thing I have done with my older campers to help with homesickness is to remind them of how they have dealt with similar situations in the past. If the camper has been to camp twitch and shout or any other camp before I lead them through a series of questions to help them recall their past experience. First I asked "Have you been to camp before?", and if the answer is yes I will follow it by these questions "have you been homesick in past years?", "how long did the homesickness last before?" and "was there anything that helped you feel better in the past?". Usually a returning camper will tell me they have been to camp before, were homesick on the first day or two, and then as they got more and more used to being in the camp environment their homesickness quickly went away. Sometimes the fact that this has happened before and has quickly gone away after a day or two in the past is clouded by the heavy emotions the camper is feeling in the moment, so they will usually need to be reminded of this and be helped to recall this from their memory. Remembering how they dealt with homesickness in the past seems to really help! In addition, you're not simply telling them how to deal with their homesickness but instead your guiding them towards the answer and helping them to develop self soothing and coping strategies that they can use in the future when they may not have a counselor to turn to. In a similar way this strategy can also be used with camp sickness when the camper gets home from camp and is missing camp and their friends.
For campers who have not been to camp before it can be helpful to use the same strategy, but instead of focusing on how they felt in the past at camp focusing on how they felt the first time they went to a sleepover or spent a weekend with their grandparents away from home.
Campers also seem to really benefit from simply having someone to talk to our their emotions. They need someone kind and compassionate to listen to them and understand them. For a lot of campers, keeping these emotions inside instead of talking about them and dealing with them can cause the negative feelings to build up and fester inside of them which can significantly interfere with their week. So even if for some reason the camper does not seem receptive to the strategies I have listed above, simply have someone to talk to about their emotions can help.
It's important for campers to be able to talk openly about their emotions, but at the same time you don't want your camper to talk about negative emotions like homesickness to excess. You want to find the right balance between giving them time to express their feelings and then helping them to move forward and focus on the current moment. The more and more the camper talks about or focuses on home, the more homesick they will feel. So after they have expressed their feelings and after you have tried to help them to feel better, it's important to help them move on and to distract them. For younger campers you may want to engage them in a fun game or activity with the rest of the group of campers, and for older campers you may want to even suggest to them that focusing on their homesickness for too long may make it worse and that it will help them to feel better to focus on something else or engage in a different type of conversation or activity. When I have made this suggestion to older campers, they have come to realize that focusing on the homesickness too much does in fact make it worse and that it's important to stay focused on the current moment or current activity in order to distract them from negative feelings. Distraction and staying focused in the moment is also important for camp sickness. Make sure your camper or child isn't focusing on the past or future, but instead focusing on the here and now and it will help negative thoughts to fade into the background.
More posts to come about camp twitch and shout!!! :)