Science is Sheepish: Spirituality Makes Us Healthier, Happier People

All along, the majority position of Psychiatry has been that Psychiatry has nothing to do with religion and spirituality. Religious beliefs and practices have long been thought to have a pathological basis, and psychiatrists over a century have understood them in this light. Religion was considered as a symptom of mental illness. Jean Charcot and Sigmund Freud linked religion with neurosis. DSM3 portrayed religion negatively by suggesting that religious and spiritual experiences are examples of psychopathology. But recent research reports strongly suggest that to many patients, religion and spirituality are resources that help them to cope with the stresses in life, including those of their illness. Many psychiatrists now believe that religion and spirituality are important in the life of their patients.

The above is the introduction to a study published in 2008 on the subject of Spirituality and Mental Health. The semi-apologetic nature of this lead in to a rigorous scientific study underscores the irony of scientists encountering the spirit and religion as therapeutic and beneficial to their patients.

Here is the thing: science doesn’t like to acknowledge the existence of a higher power. Science likes to acknowledge nice, hard, provable facts. Which is why it may be an irksome thing for scientists to acknowledge the absolute fact that spirituality and religion can have a positive impact on health, both physical and mental.

And so, when forced to acknowledge the benefits of belief, they, the scientists, must remain detached and apologetic, explaining that while religion is a crock, if it helps their patients, it’s no skin off their teeth. But for the rest of us, those of us who are regular people, we are quite happy to acknowledge that striving to be spiritual people makes us better. We don’t care who says we’re being silly or imagining things. We believe what we believe.

And it makes us well. Makes us better people.

Yes. Everyone knows, for instance, that 12 step programs help people get sober. One of the reasons these programs work is that acknowledging a Higher Power is at the core of all of these programs, beginning with the mother of them all: Alcoholics Anonymous. That is what really sets apart 12-step programs from other types of substance abuse treatments and makes them work.

And this can be proven. In a study of teens aged 14-18, for instance, increased spirituality concurrent with receiving treatment for substance abuse was found to improve the likelihood that the participants would achieve abstinence, increase positive social behaviors, and lessen narcissistic behavior. One-third of the teens in this particular study entered this program for substance abuse as self-declared agnostics or atheists. Two-thirds of them were subsequently discharged claiming a spiritual identity.

What about mental health, quality of life, happiness? There too, it can be proven that having a spiritual side makes everything better. Scientists studied 320 children and found that strong spiritual beliefs were a strong predictor of greater happiness. In fact, the researchers found that it was possible to attribute up to 27% of the difference in happiness levels to spirituality.

But here’s a study that will really make your head spin: scientists found that people with a family history of deep spiritual ties were at a lower risk for depression. The reason? They had a relatively thicker cortex, the region of the brain found to be thinner in those with depression. In other words, if your mom believes in God (and maybe your grandmother before her), you’re less likely to become depressed. A family history of spirituality actually changes the physical contours of the brain! Mind-blowing (well, let’s hope not!).

By Patric Hagmann et.al. [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
The funny thing is, it doesn’t matter what religion you are, or what you believe in. It’s all good from the standpoint of your mental health. Dan Cohen, an assistant teaching professor of religious studies at the University of Missouri says that’s because it’s more about spirituality acting as a personality trait. In the study he authored, no matter what faith the participants: Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant, the more spiritual they were, the better their mental health. The more spiritual participants had lower levels of neuroticism and tended to be more outgoing.

“Our prior research shows that the mental health of people recovering from different medical conditions, such as cancer, stroke, spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury, appears to be related significantly to positive spiritual beliefs and especially congregational support and spiritual interventions,” said Cohen. “Spiritual beliefs may be a coping device to help individuals deal emotionally with stress.

Cohen thinks that being a spiritual person aids mental health by reducing self-centeredness and by helping people see they are a part of a much larger whole. Forgiveness is also part of the dynamic, as it is a central theme for all the major religions. Being able to forgive means being able to let go of blame and recrimination after an accident or during serious illness.

With all of this evidence that having a spiritual life is healthy, there’s a tendency to sneer at the religious, to see them as immature or even a bit weird. Those who embrace spirituality, however, couldn’t care less what others think. Hunger Games actress Jennifer Lawrence, for instance, spoke about her spiritual life in a 2012 interview with Marie Claire, “In the South it’s very normal. It would be weird for me to go to sleep without praying,” said Lawrence.

Meanwhile, Jim Gaffigan, of Comedy Central, expressed the belief that, “When we were kids it didn’t matter if someone was religious, it just mattered if they were annoying.

Could it be Gaffigan longs to return to that time when no one cared what you believed as long as you didn’t foist it on others? It’s not difficult to empathize. No one likes to have a belief foisted on them.

Oprah Winfrey said it well in a talk she gave at Stanford University on spiritual practice, “I’m not telling you what to believe or who to believe, or what to call it,” said Winfrey. “But there is no full life, no fulfilled or meaningful, sustainably joyful life without a connection to the spirit.”

Rabbi Avi Davidowitz is Camp Rabbi at TheZone, Oorah’s summer camp facility. Oorah, of course, is a Kars4Kids affiliate charity, with the latter funding many of Oorah’s programs. At TheZone, Rabbi  D., as he is known to the campers, sees daily evidence of the power of spirituality and the interplay between religious development and personal growth.

Spirituality: Elisheva E.

One day, Rabbi D. was approached by a girl at the beginning of his lesson. She asked if she could tell her personal story to the assembled campers and Rabbi D., of course, gave his consent. “We were spellbound as Elisheva E. spoke about her reading disability and how she pined to pray the shmoneh esrei prayer, also known as the Silent Benediction just once in her life. This young girl said it took her 45 minutes to say shmoneh esrei. She wanted to stop when almost all the other campers had already gone on to their activities, but her camper partner, Alana L. who also struggles with reading from the prayer book, stood there next to her as if she too were still praying, and with this friendship and encouragement, Elisheva kept going until she finished.”

The two of them stayed at it until they both were able to read through the entire prayer.  Rabbi D. remarked that, “They spoke to us about never giving up: if we keep trying, Hashem (God) will help us out.”

This aptly illustrates the power of belief and spirituality: the idea that a difficulty can be conquered if you believe in God and if you try hard enough. It also shows how belief in God led to empathy between two individuals, both struggling with difficulties, one in the past, one in the present.

Spirituality: The Donation

Another striking Oorah story that shows how belief helps children strive to be better comes from Rabbi Avraham Krawiec, who served as Director of TheZone for many years.  “A girl just back from a camp outing walked over to me, telling me that she had to speak with me. She became emotional and said, ‘I just won some money in a raffle and I want to give back to Oorah knowing how much you do for my family.'”

Rabbi Krawiec was torn. On the one hand, he didn’t want to take her money, at the same time, he didn’t want to take away her right to a good deed, either, and that is what made him accept her modest donation of $15

As Rabbi Krawiec put it, “It was only $15 but it was the best $15 donation I ever received.”

Here a child has learned the value of charity, a central belief of Judaism. Her spiritual development has led her to the concept of paying it forward and helping others. As a result, the girl is growing up to be a kind person—someone who will surely be an asset to any community lucky enough to include her as a future adult!

Spirituality: Delayed Gratification

Belief in the tenets of religion can also teach us about self-control and delaying gratification for a higher purpose. Aryeh, a TeenZone division head at TheZone, kept in touch with one camper calling him just after the Rosh Hashana holiday to see how he was doing. As it turns out, the boy was not doing well at all.

He’d wanted to observe the holiday with orthodox rigor, but could not stop himself from using his mobile phone, a no-no for the orthodox. The camper begged Aryeh to help him come up with a plan so he wouldn’t repeat the error on the upcoming Yom Kippur holiday, when phones are similarly off-limits for the very religious.

The boy intuited that his phone was coming between him and his relationship to the Divine. The phone was not in the spirit of the Ten Days of Repentance when we look back over the year past, to see where and when we failed to stop ourselves from doing things we wanted to do in the moment, instead of pushing to come closer to God. After discussing with Aryeh various ways he might keep himself from using the phone on the holiday, he got a brainstorm idea: he’d mail his phone to Aryeh!

Well, this plan certainly worked. Aryeh’s phone rang right after the holiday, and the boy’s voice was filled with joy. He’d done it. Observed Yom Kippur from start to finish, as it was meant to be observed. He’d felt nothing but holiness all that day.

Is it any wonder that the following summer, on the very last day of camp at TheZone, as the buses were already beginning to leave, that the boy went over to Aryeh and asked him to remind him to mail his phone to him for safe-keeping over the Rosh Hashana holiday?

Here was a boy who had learned that contrary to everything he’d always thought, it is quite possible to delay gratification, to patiently endure whatever trials and tribulations come our way, and come out all the stronger for it! Here was a boy who had learned that being a believing Jew on Rosh Hashanah meant putting away the phone and looking into his own heart instead of a screen.

The scientists may not like it, but there it is: being in touch with our spiritual side makes us better, healthier people, kids or adults.

And that’s a fact.

It makes us strive to achieve the seemingly unachievable and well, it makes us happier, too

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Bullies: The Names They Call Us And How The Hurt Can Change Us

Bullies: The Names They Call Us And How The Hurt Can Change UsBullies were a fact of life for me growing up. I was different. I read a lot, I used big words.

So I got picked on.

This piece is my personal story.

It was bad. There was a girl who beat me up at recess and a different girl who waited for me each day after school to beat me up. I was terrified to go to school and I was terrified to come home.

Because of the bullies.

Growing up, I played sick a lot. And the truth is, I wasn’t playing. There was this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach every morning of the week that was a school day. I was sick to my stomach and sick at heart.

Because of the bullies.

I remembered this when years later, during a parent teacher meeting, the teacher asked me, “Does he have a smile on his face when he leaves the house for school each morning?

“Because that’s the most important thing. More important than his school work. More important than anything.”

She was right. I was so afraid to go to school. School was the monster in the closet. School was the scariest thing in my life at that time.

Because of the bullies

Getting beaten up was bad, but not as bad as my hurt feelings, somehow. The pain of not fitting in. The pain of being made fun of, of being called ugly nicknames instead of my real name. Bucky Beaver, because of my teeth; BM, because these were my initials at that time; Miss Encyclopedia, because I used big words; and some other names I hesitate to mention here for fear of offending my readers.

Wasan Ritthawon / Shutterstock.com
We shared initials. Wasan Ritthawon / Shutterstock.com

 

 

One day, it hit me. Batman, a new concept at that time, had my very same initials. I was all ready for the name callers the next day. “BM stands for BATMAN,” I told those bullies proudly. “You better treat me good or he’s gonna beat you up!”

 

But they, the bullies, just laughed. Which took all the air out of my most temporary sails.

 

 

 

 

 

The name calling and how it shaped me is the reason this clip by Shane Koyczan resonated with me so deeply:

But back then, I didn’t think of the future. I could only think of my miserable now. My mom tried to help. She came to the school. Talked with my teacher. Named names. And the abuse continued. There was nothing anyone could do about it—could do about the bullies. I had to live with it, had to live with the bullying.

So I struggled and got poor grades and developed a complete aversion toward all schools, all classrooms. Never went to college.

Some schools weren’t so bad. And occasionally I’d do something brave like that Batman stunt, intended to change my lot and make me popular. It never worked. It would always be more fodder for their teasing.

Like the time I did some sleight of hand with a snack at camp, and made it appear as if I was eating a worm along with my graham cracker. I was convincing.

Too convincing.

And so on top of everything else, I became the girl who ate a worm, for the entire rest of camp.

Yeah. School pretty much sucked for me. So did camp. Bullies know no seasons.

That teacher who said that my son leaving for school with a smile on his face was so right. Because those experiences I had colored everything for me. I made life choices to escape having to go on to get a higher education. I turned into a recluse.

Today, I am still mostly a recluse. When I do come out for some reason or other, I am always shocked at being warmly received. I expect to be disliked. I’m surprise when anyone laughs at my jokes.

The funny thing is, today I am actually popular, if social media is any indication (which it may not be at all, actually). I can’t keep up with friend requests. Today, the number of friends I have on Facebook stands at 1750 and I am constantly receiving new requests (many of which I reject because it’s just too overwhelming).

Sometimes I wonder if it would be different today. Are bullies dealt with more effectively today? I really don’t know. I only know that our awareness of bullying is much greater than in the past. Is there really anything anyone can do about bullies?

I remain unconvinced.

Bullies Don’t Care About Your Advice

Take for instance, this advice on What to Do if You’re Bullied section from the government website stopbullying.gov:

  • Look at the kid bullying you and tell him or her to stop in a calm, clear voice. You can also try to laugh it off. This works best if joking is easy for you. It could catch the kid bullying you off guard.
  • If speaking up seems too hard or not safe, walk away and stay away. Don’t fight back. Find an adult to stop the bullying on the spot.

These are all things I tried to do when I was bullied. None of these tactics worked for me.

Tell them to stop in a clear voice? They, the bullies, would say, “Who’s gonna stop me? You and who else?”

Laugh it off? The bullies would say, “You think it’s funny? How about this? Is this funny?” and they’d punch me. “How about that? Is that funny?” and they’d punch me somewhere else.

Walk away? The bullies would chase me down and trap me somewhere and beat me up. They, the bullies, were always faster and stronger than I.

As for enlisting the help of an adult, well, bullies don’t bully when adults are around. They make sure of that. Should an adult appear, all bullying stops right then and there. To be resumed later. When the coast is clear.

Now I like to think that we grow from our experiences, even bad ones. Our experiences shape us in all sorts of ways, some of them bad, like my aversion to school, but some of them good, like the way I developed empathy for new kids, immigrant kids, and took them under my wing. Like my writing, which developed as a way for me to express pent up emotion, and fit in well with my addiction to reading, which fit in well with me being a recluse and hiding away from life (and bullies).

I thought of all this last night when I watched this amazing TED clip of Monica Lewinsky who received a standing ovation for detailing her public humiliation and emphasizing the need to have online compassion to prevent cyberbullying:

The bullying I suffered made me a more compassionate person, for sure. But it cut deeply into my soul. It hurt.

I think there must be a better way for children to learn compassion. And maybe it does indeed begin with our online behavior.

Five Benefits of Summer Camp For Foster Children

Five Benefits Of Summer Camp For Foster Children
Foster children enjoy doing all the things that regular children do at summer camp.

The harsh reality for foster children is that their childhood isn’t normal. Being removed from your home because of abuse or neglect and being placed somewhere with someone you don’t know is simply something most children don’t have to deal with. It sets them apart in a way that’s difficult to comprehend.

However, foster parents work hard to build a bridge back to normalcy. One way they attempt to do this is by providing the child in their care with the opportunity for a common childhood experience.

One such opportunity is summer camp, something we feel strongly about at Foster and Adoptive Family Services (FAFS), an organization offering camp scholarships to children in foster care in New Jersey. FAFS gives children an opportunity to stay at an overnight camp for a week where they can have the time of their lives.

Foster Children And Summer Camp

Here are five important benefits of summer camp for foster children:

1) Summer camp is a chance for siblings to reunite.

While there has been a push by foster care agencies across the country to place siblings in the same foster home, the truth is that this isn’t always possible. Sometimes brothers and sisters are separated from one another. For a foster child, who is already dealing with unimaginable loss, the separation from a sibling who can relate and empathize during this traumatic period is devastating.  Summer camp is an opportunity for siblings in separate foster homes to connect and bond. It’s a chance for brothers and sisters to create new, positive memories that they can carry with them through the tough days. More importantly, it’s a reminder that they are not alone.

Siblings reunite
Siblings reunite

2) Summer camp will help improve social skills.

Camp is a chance for foster children to interact with kids from all different kinds of backgrounds and cultures. Sharing cabins with strangers their own age is an occasion for foster children to develop friendships and create their own social circle that isn’t dependent on where they live or where they go to school. For foster children who may be suffering from low self-esteem due to the tragic circumstances of their removal, this is an opportunity for a boost in confidence.

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A chance to work on social skills.

3) Summer camp is a break from the routine

Sometimes escaping an environment, even temporarily, can be a much-needed breath of fresh air. Anyone who has ever taken a vacation after a difficult period in his or her life can attest to the restorative power of the break. For foster children, an escape from the routine of day-to-day life can be invigorating.  Given that many children spend their days behind screens and gadgets, being outdoors at camp is a refreshing change of pace. Who knows, camp could even inspire a love of nature that would otherwise go undiscovered.

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Summer camp offers kids a change of pace.

4) Summer camp is a healthy outlet for pent up energy

As anyone who has ever interacted with a child will tell you, kids have a lot of energy. Foster children are no different.  What can tire out an adult out in an hour is merely a prologue to a child. The key is putting that energy to positive use. Nowhere is that easier to do than at camp. Whether it’s a kickball game, a long hike or rock climbing, foster children will have an opportunity to release their inexhaustible energy doing something fun.

Cute boy pulling rope. Shallow DOF. Developed from RAW; retouched with special care and attention; Adobe RGB color profile.
Tug of war at camp is a great way to release pent up energy.

5) Summer camp is chance at normalcy

For foster children, normal is not easy to come by.  That’s why summer camp, an activity that millions of kids participate in annually across the country, is special. The crackling fire, the s’mores that leave faces covered in chocolate, and the friendships forged over tug of war are all rights of passage on the path to adulthood. For foster children who may often feel separated or alienated due to their circumstance, camp is an excellent opportunity to feel included in a positive experience. This shared memory of new friends and fireside tales can go a long way.

Being together with kids their own age at camp gives foster kids that hard-won feeling of normalcy.
Being together with kids their own age at camp gives foster kids that hard-won feeling of normalcy.

 

Homesickness: A Guide

Homesickness: A Guide
These happy campers have just arrived. Will they experience homesickness? (photo courtesy: TheZone)

Homesickness is painful; perhaps even more so when you’re the parent of a homesick child who’s off to summer camp. The feeling of helplessness, of not knowing what to do, can be a bit overwhelming. Do you bring your child home? Force him/her to stick it out for the duration, and feel like just about the meanest parent in the world?

What Is Homesickness?

Homesickness is that sick, sad feeling in the chest and pit of the stomach, and the desperate feeling of wanting to go home, often experienced by children away from home at summer camp. The feelings of homesickness may be accompanied by fear that the other campers will see the emotions the homesick child is experiencing and seize on them as a reason for merciless teasing.

This staff member keeps campers happy by being emotionally available and warm. (photo courtesy: TheZone)
This staff member keeps campers happy by being emotionally available and warm. (photo courtesy: TheZone)

Who Gets Homesick?

Most kids in summer camp experience homesickness at some point, to one degree or another. In fact, anyone can experience homesickness when placed in unfamiliar surroundings. Adults may experience homesickness when they move to a new city, or travel for business. College students may experience homesickness after the initial excitement of being on-campus wears thin. Even experienced summer camp staff members can experience a bit of homesickness.

What Causes Homesickness?

Think of the relief you feel when you come home after a hard day at work or after being out with friends. Even if you had a productive day or a fun evening, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of coming home. Being at summer camp means not getting that feeling of relief that comes from being able to go home at the end of the day where you can kick back and relax and be yourself. It means not having the mattress you’re used to, or perhaps your favorite drinking glass. It’s natural for kids to begin to feel uncomfortable without the comforts of home, without the people at home. They begin to feel insecure, cut adrift from everything familiar, even if camp is beautiful, the counselors understanding, and the activities, a blast.

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Ice cream can cure homesickness faster than you can say, “Vanilla, please!” (photo courtesy: TheZone)

Why Risk Homesickness?

When you find out your child is homesick, it’s good to remember why you sent your child to a sleepover summer camp in the first place. If you’re like most parents, you wanted your child to have the experience of a lifetime: to have fun in beautiful, rustic surroundings, and to learn some independence, too. Despite these praiseworthy goals, some level of homesickness is bound to be experienced by your child.

In most cases however, handled correctly, these feelings of homesickness pass. If your child manages to stick it out and make the summer work, it’s a win for your child, a milestone achievement. Put plainly, staying on at camp and making it through in spite of homesickness is a good thing. It means your child is a summer camp success, because conquering homesickness is huge.

Throwing yourself into fun camp activities keeps homesickness at bay. (photo courtesy: TheZone)
Throwing yourself into fun camp activities keeps homesickness at bay. (photo courtesy: TheZone)

Heading Off Homesickness

Since homesickness is something that your child may very well experience at summer camp, it’s good to prepare ahead of time. Here are some steps you and your child can take to help head off those feelings of homesickness:

  • Let your child help you choose the camp. If he is involved in the preparations, he will be less likely to feel homesick.
  • Foster independence in your child all year round. Have him learn to take the bus to a piano lesson, do his own laundry, and practice making appointments by phone.
  • If the camp isn’t too far away, try to visit the camp together, before the summer begins, so your child has a chance to see and familiarize himself with his new surroundings.
  • Send your child to a camp where his best friend will be. Having a camp “buddy” makes camp feel a lot more comfortable and homey.
  • Talk about what camp will be like, and how your child can expect to feel as a camper. For instance, talk about what it might feel like to wake up in a new and different place.
  • Pack something that feels like home, such as a stuffed animal, or a certain pillow your child always has by his side as he sleeps.
  • Purchase a notebook for your child to use as a journal at camp, in which he can write all his feelings, whenever feelings of homesickness occur.
  • Practice for sleepover camp by staying over at a friend’s house for a night or a weekend.
  • Send a care package or letter ahead of time, so it will arrive when your child arrives at camp. What a nice (and comforting) surprise!
  • Write to your child about what you are doing while he is away, but don’t make it sound too awesome, or he’ll feel he’s missing out on something!
  • Bring envelopes with home address filled in and stamps affixed, one for each day, and tell your child to mail one letter home each day. These daily letters can help serve as a bridge between home and camp, and as the pile of envelopes gets smaller, your child will realize he’s almost made it through camp, and that’s a great feeling.
  • Talk about strategies your child can use to cope with homesickness, for instance, staying busy, confiding in a friend, calling home (if the camp permits this), chatting with a staff member, writing in a journal, writing a letter home, having fun!
TheZone has animals such as bunnies, that campers can cuddle for comfort when they're feeling homesick, angry, or out of sorts. (photo courtesy: TheZone)
TheZone has animals such as bunnies, that campers can cuddle for comfort when they’re feeling homesick, angry, or out of sorts. (photo courtesy: TheZone)

When Homesickness Hits

If in spite of all the preparation your child is homesick, here are some things you can do:

  • Talk to the camp director and try to get a good honest feel for how your child is adjusting.
  • Push back against the natural desire to rescue your child by bringing him home. It’s hard to know your child is having pangs of homesickness, but getting past the feelings and making a success of camp will be an incredibly valuable experience for your child and a milestone achievement.
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings of homesickness and let him know you love him. If he is begging to come home, you can say, “Let’s talk about this again in two days, okay? If you still feel the same way, we can think about what we can do.”
  • Know that most feelings of homesickness pass within a couple of days.
  • Tell your child you are proud of him for trying to work things out, even if he needs a lot of help from camp staff and from you.
  • Don’t indulge feelings of guilt. This is something your child has to get past in order to grow and develop.
  • Talk to your child about adjusting his expectations. Maybe camp isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but is there something or some activity at camp that he really enjoys? Encourage him to enjoy the enjoyable and to not worry too much about the rest.
  • Explain that he has made a commitment and that it is important he see this through, even though it hurts.
  • Remind your child of the strategies he can use to get past the feelings: write in a journal, talk to a friend or staff member, keep busy, write a letter, stay busy, have fun.
  • Try not to worry. Remember that the staff is well-trained to recognize and deal with homesickness. Your child will be just fine.
  • If you see that your child is making no effort at all and is not having fun, trust your instincts and let him come home. Let him know there’s always next summer to try again, and it’s not the end of the world.
The very best weapon against homesickness is having fun and lots of it! (photo courtesy: TheZone)
The very best weapon against homesickness is having fun and lots of it! (photo courtesy: TheZone)

5 More Homesickness Tips

Mrs. Lifsha Kleinman, camp mother at TheZone, offers the following practical homesickness tips:

  1. It is best for parents and kids not to communicate in the first week of camp. The kids need time to adjust.
  2. If kids do cry to their parents, the parents should sympathize, but encourage their kids to get involved in activities and allow themselves to be distracted.
  3. Tell kids (older ones and younger ones) that it is NORMAL to feel homesick. Kids will especially feel homesick during down times, like rest hour and/or nighttime.
  4. Parents should understand that kids might cry on the phone and 5 minutes later, they are running and having fun and are distracted. The parents, on the other hand, can’t sleep at night. They should always feel free to talk to someone in camp to see if their child continues to remain unhappy.
  5. Sometimes humor can help get a child to relax.

“Bottom line, most kids will adjust if they are given time and have the proper attitude. Yet there are a few that just can’t make it in camp,” says Mrs. Kleinman. “If I see a kid crying and crying all day, I would call his or her parent. In all my years as a camp mother, I can only remember two  kids who could not stop crying and really needed to go home.”

Homesickness isn’t fun, but it’s certainly one of the challenges that come with the summer camp experience. Making it through camp in spite of homesickness turns your child into a champion. Let him know you’re proud of him (or her) for getting through to the other side!

Sleepovers: Preparing Your Child To Leave the Nest

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Sleepovers are where your kids can get their first tastes of independence.

Sleepovers are part of the childhood experience. It’s when children forge lasting memories with friends, classmates, and family members like cousins and grandparents. If the sleepover is at the home of an adult you trust, it can be where your child experiences first tastes of freedom in a safe, supportive environment.

When I was a child, a sleepover with one friend or a slumber party with a gaggle of friends was a rite of passage. It was where I could push boundaries of etiquette without repercussion, where I could figure out interpersonal skills with kids I didn’t know so well and where some acquaintances could become good friends simply because I got to know them outside the pressures of school. Forty years later, I still remember the 13 pancakes I ate in a contest at a slumber party and the freakish ghost stories we shared that kept us from falling asleep until dawn.

Sleepovers are where I developed a taste of being away from home, where I learned flexibility, boundaries with someone else’s parents, and where I was forced to deal with situations outside my comfort zone. I loved sleepovers especially the lazy summer ones where I could disappear for days at a time in someone else’s house.

For many kids, sleepovers act as that first step to leaving the nest. It’s an early taste of independence. It’s also extremely important for a child’s emotional development, according to Maureen Monaghan, PhD, clinical and pediatric psychologist with the Children’s National Medical Center.

When kids are away from home, they have to face their fears, separation anxiety, uncertainty and work through it. The act of taking ownership of and working through that fear is what builds confidence in children.

It’s also a proving ground for kids who’d like to go to sleepaway camp some time down the road.

A well-planned sleepover with someone you trust can help kids grow in a safe, supportive environment. Your child’s ability to successfully navigate sleepovers can determine his willingness to leave home. In a way, it’s preparing your child to leave the nest.

If your child doesn’t have much experience with sleepovers or if your child doesn’t relish them much, here’s what you can do to make them work.

Start with people you and your child know well and trust.

Start by sending your child to their grandparents’, to an aunt and uncle’s, or to a friend’s house for a sleepover: someplace with an adult they trust but where they get to be away and have to fall asleep without their usual bedtime ritual.

Talk with your child about the sleepover.

Use the talk to work through any of your child’s worries. Nighttime, right before bed is when your child is tired and his imagination can get out of control. Talk about his worries, fears, and concerns. Address them. If your child has any boogeymen, talking about them can ease anxiety and reduce fears.

Develop a plan with your child, one that covers emergencies and what if’s.

Setting a contingency plan, or mapping out the progression of events at the sleepover will allay fears and worries. Set up an emergency contingency plan with your child, in case there’s an emergency.

Develop a checklist for your child, especially if he feels nervous.

You should obviously address any medical needs like medication, a special diet or potential anxiety, and it’s important to sit down and talk about what to expect, all the issues. You should always acknowledge the possibility of homesickness; tell your child if you experienced it and share your own stories.

Address homesickness.

Homesickness is normal and it doesn’t only happen with kids; it happens with the parents too. Your child’s ability to deal with his own homesickness is what can be empowering as an experience. But you as the parent must deal with your own separation anxiety when your child leaves. Ask your child what concerns her about her first overnight. Ask, listen, and figure out what the concerns are.” Ease your child into the transition by telling them to call if they feel uncomfortable, and that it’s okay either way if they want to go home or stay until the morning. You’re giving them power in that moment to work through the anxiety and make a choice that’s good for them.

Inform without control.

If you have important information to share with the parent, do it in a clear, direct manner. Do it without hysterics, fanfare, and anxiety. This is your child. These are her limitations, her health issues, her allergies. Be respectful and polite. Set up a contingency plan with the parent, what happens if there’s an emergency? What happens if homesickness becomes severe? Then, as long as you feel confident with the parent, back off and have a little trust. If the hosting parent is experienced and savvy, she will put your mind at rest. As A good parent will put herself in your position and make you feel comfortable. As Heather Wittenberg, Psy.D., a parenting psychologist in Maui, Hawaii says, when she hosts a sleepover “When I’m hosting, I put it all out there. I say, ‘We have no guns, we have no dog, we have no pool. We are going to watch this cartoon, eat pizza, and go to bed.'”

Address your own fears and insecurities.

It’s natural to experience the tug of apron strings when your little one goes off to a sleepover. After all, you miss him, you worry if he’ll be happy, over his safety. Buut if you’ve done your homework well, you shouldn’t worry. In fact, you should use this sleepover as a personal recovery opportunity. Use it as an opportunity to rekindle a spark with your spouse, especially if you don’t have other children at home.

If of course, you’re having anxiety, you need to rein in those insecurities and worries. Not only is it bad for you. Your child won’t want to leave home if he or she worries that you’re not okay.

 

 

 

 

 

Camp Memories: What Do You Remember?

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What reminds you of camp? What camp memories are most poignant? Was it your bunk, your counselors, or friends? What foods do you still remember and relish decades later? Was it the camp songs? Was it the bug juice, camping trips, or the mess hall banquets? Do you want your children to enjoy the same experiences? If you were to send your children to camp, what would you want for them?

For me, my metal mess kit, uncooked barbecue chicken, maple syrup, and pine sol remind me of camp. When I was a camper in 1968, I went with my camp on a camp out. I was six years old, the youngest camper in the entire camp, and away from home for five weeks. My mother, a single working mom at the time, had gotten a scholarship for me to attend a Jewish camp in the Poconos, two hours from Philadelphia. I loved it. I went from being a latch-key child to having lots adults around to watch after and interact with me.

On the camp-out, the counselors set up circus-sized tents. I remember picking the coziest spot I could find to roll out my sleeping bag, setting up my stuffed animals, and hunkering down with the other campers.

The counselors built roaring campfires, and began to grill chicken. We unpacked our canteens and mess kits, played games, and waited with anticipation for dinner. Then a storm rolled in. Not just any storm. The sky seemed to open up and sheets of rain pounded our tests. Pools of rainwater collecting on the tent roof swelled and sprang drippy leaks inside the tent. Huddling together in the tents, we ate under-cooked chicken while lightening bolts lit up the sky.

The chicken was rubbery, pink, cold, and truly tasteless. After a couple hours of waiting out the rain, the counselors aborted the camping trip, loaded us into vans, and returned to camp.

Forty-five years later, I still think of camp whenever I grill chicken. It’s a sweet, sentimental flashback, a reminder of an innocent, intensely personal, familial setting where I felt safe, cared for, and busy.

Bunk challenges and camp banquets forge fond camp memories.
Bunk challenges and camp banquets forge fond camp memories.

I have other great camp memories. I looked forward to bunk challenges in the mess tent. A fork and knife breakfast meant that we could come to breakfast dressed in mismatched shoes, socks, and clothing. Movie nights meant we could camp out in the auditorium/gym in our pajamas and sleeping bags, each with a personal stash of candy and popcorn. Camp is where I learned about daddy long legs, frogs, crickets, fish, deer, and a whole host of wildlife I never saw in our apartment complex in Philadelphia.

Flash forward, I was lucky enough to send most of my children to sleep away camps. Some hated being away from home and recall their fondest memories were coming home. Others made life-long friends and fifteen years later still maintain these friendships. Camp is where I felt my first sense of freedom within the constraints of a safety net, where I was pushed out of my comfort when I learned how to swim, when I canoed on a lake, and when I endured a camping trip in a fierce thunderstorm.

While putting this post together, I surveyed a hundred of my social media friends and asked them–what are your favorite camp foods and camp memories? The answers were fun and most revealing. Many of the most important experiences, sentimental memories we have are away from our parents. And that’s important to note. It is this sense of independence, confidence that comes from being away from home and mastering homesickness, and collecting new competencies, close-knit friendships, and life-long memories that makes overnight camp a powerful developmental tool.

These are some of my favorite responses from former campers.

Under favorite foods–

Toasted marshmallows and s’mores. No need to explain. At least I hope not.

Toasted marshmallows never grow old.
Toasted marshmallows never grow old.

  Rocky Mountain Toast (we call it eggs in baskets in my house). It’s a slice of bread with a whole in the middle. The egg is fried with the slice of bread in a frying pan. Eat with or without maple syrup. Use the bread to wipe up the egg.

  Bug Juice (for a couple years, I thought it really was bug guts). Now I know the truth. Kool Aid!

I loved bug juice at camp because we couldn't have it at home.
I loved bug juice at camp because we couldn’t have it at home.

Beenie Weenie with Chili. Need I say more except keep the Bean-O close by.

Cream of Wheat with butter and sugar. My husband’s favorite although the kids and I eat it with grits.

Foil packets. These rock and any meal can be exciting when you throw a concoction in a foil packet and throw it on the grill. Hamburgers, potato chunks, onions, and tomato sauce, tuna melts, even applies and peaches with oatmeal and brown sugar to make a fruit crisp.

Under Favorite Memories–

Canoeing at the Delaware Water Gap. This is a breathtaking section of the Delaware River, if you’re unfamiliar.

Camp is where I met my husband (not me but one of my respondents).

Midnight hikes along the lake.

Camp outs

Camp banquets

Bunk challenges

The camp canteen

Going to the infirmary (lol)

Swimming in the lake

Have any others that I haven’t mentioned? Post them in the comments section and I may use them in my next camp post.