If Summer Camp Closes: Embracing the Moment and Opening the Door for New Opportunities for Families

By Dr. Daniel Klein

Some have expressed that summer camp is a privilege for kids. For those of us who camp helped shape, we see summer camp as an incredible gift for our children. I am proud to be part of a community that values and supports the critical and unique role that summer camp plays in impacting the lives of our youth. Identity formation, authenticity, confidence, leadership, self-esteem, friendship, appreciation of the outdoors, respect, disconnection from technology, and independence represent just some of what kids gain. This is the camp experience for those fortunate to attend.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars are raised each year to make our camp financially accessible for families. Thousands of kids spend their school year waiting to attend from anywhere from several days to many weeks. Inspiring young adults give up internships and opportunities for higher paying jobs to accept a coveted counselor position. Professional staff and volunteers work tirelessly for ten months to prepare for two magical summer months. On Monday, our camp joined scores of others, around the country, making the necessary decision to close for the summer. The decision was based on adherence to the first rule of camp: safety first. The news was heartbreaking for our children, teens, parents and community.

A Grieving Process 

As parents, we want the best for our children and to provide opportunities for growth. We try to protect and help them feel safe and secure. This is our first instinct from the day we become parents. Watching our children hurt and experience yet another Covid related loss is so tough.   For those for whom camp is so important, losing a precious camp summer is akin to a grief process. When hearing the news many anticipated, the emotions were very raw. Parents and kids feeling disbelief, sadness, anger, questioning, denial and understanding to name a few. Social media immediately lit up with posts of tears.

At this moment, what our kids need from their parents and caregivers is to be attentive, present and available. Listen. Validate. Show empathy. Hug and hold your child. Use words such as: “I hear you.” “This hurts so much.” “This is so incredibly disappointing. ” “This is so hard to believe.”  Encourage your kids to share what they are feeling and give them space if and when needed. Some kids will have a lot to say and many emotions to show. For others, this may take time and could come out in their behavior.  Certain kids will need help verbalizing what they are feeling. Stay attuned to them.

Many teens may lean more into their friends. This is okay and expected. Encourage their connections and continue to be available. Check in often in the coming days.  While feelings may be very intense, avoid words such as  “devastating” and “catastrophic.“ Reflect on what they are feeling with healthy labels while modeling a resolve that we will recover and heal.

For a would-be camper who was new or trying a program outside of their comfort zone, there could be both relief and disappointment. Use this as an opportunity to share how proud you are of them for being willing to try something unfamiliar. Let them know they will get another chance and celebrate how they challenged themselves by signing up. Think about and look for new experiences they can try in the year ahead.

It’s helpful to provide hope for the future while recognizing they may not be ready to hear about how they will have many more summers or opportunities. Adults have this vantage while kids’ perspective is based more in the present. The first several days after the news is largely about recognizing and acknowledging the loss. It’s ok to sit with this and cry when needed. Their feelings may fluctuate. Encourage your kids to connect with friends and family, share photos, stories and memories. Allow for them to talk about what they will miss and what is lost. Again, be present and validating.

For kids with mental health concerns, the same principals apply. Check in with your kids. Not just today or tomorrow but in the weeks ahead and before and after summer officially starts. Stay connected. Be aware of any dramatic changes in their functioning: their mood, sleep, appetite, behavior, academics, and be alert to any changes that don’t seem to resolve. If you feel uneasy, don’t hesitate to call your child’s doctor or talk to a mental health professional. These are unusual times and better to be safe.

What Happens Next Summer 

One of the big questions for campers is what happens next summer. Will I get another opportunity to attend the program I just lost?  The honest answer is camps will be figuring this out in the weeks and months ahead. No camp was prepared for a pandemic. Acknowledge these decisions are another area of uncertainty and discuss how they have successfully dealt with the unknown in the past. Validate that it’s normal to start thinking about what will happen next and hard not to get answers right away. Let them share their feelings and ideas with you and with camp. Having their voice heard can help them feel a little more control over an unknown future. Think of ways to financially support camp as they will need our help more than ever. Camp was not designed to endure a full summer cancellation.

Many parents might be thinking about what is going to happen this summer with their kids at home. For some, there are very practical concerns with job commitments and day care that needs to be worked out. There is still a lot unknown and very real challenges to overcome. Many children and teens desperately want to see their friends again. Families are stressed. The truth is, we don’t know when social distancing will end and when life will begin to feel more normal. This will get figured out in the days, weeks and months ahead. We may not know all the answers. The old adage of one step or day at a time is a good way to approach this. We need to find positives in each day while we navigate this time and get this figured out.

An Opportunity for Families 

A big question parents are now asking is how to keep our kids occupied with meaningful activities. Here is a golden opportunity that lies in the days and weeks ahead:

When the raw emotion begins to settle and the time feels right, talk with your kids about what they gain from going to camp. Ask your child why the camp experience is so important. Parents should reflect on this question too. Is it about connecting with friends? Building and growing new friendships? Being authentic and your best version of yourself? Trying new things? Unplugging?  No, we can’t re-create camp in the same exact way. We can’t replace the loss. However, if we really consider these thoughts as opportunities, we can approach our coming weeks similar to camp. By together being creative and resourceful, we can tap into the spirit, the essence and even some of the magic of camp. Talk with your child, teens and/or young adult about how they can be more authentic, vulnerable and accepting in their relationships. Reach out to a family and get to know them better. Take your child fishing, on a hike or teach them how to build a fire. Come up with a new and unique arts and crafts or wood working project. Sit down as a family and talk about your past week and share your feelings like a bunk would do. Look out at the stars at night. These are just some examples, and together families can discover many more. If we look to integrate these types of experiences into our families in the coming weeks, the impact will be great and the memories can also be very special.

Losing a summer of camp to the pandemic is very painful for our kids and the entire camp community. At the end of the day, it’s said that camp is about people and the relationships. This is not just a camp lesson but a lesson we learn in life. Relationships shape the core of who we all are and they will help us heal from this moment in time. No relationship is more important than the one with your child. This is exactly what will help you, your family, and community get through this very difficult time.

Daniel Klein, Psy.D.  is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Child and Family Solutions Center. A self-described “camp lifer” whose career was inspired by camp, he is a former camper, counselor and parent of two campers who live for their summers. He presently serves as an officer on the board of directors of the Bloomfield Hills based non-profit Tamarack Camps