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Kids and Anxiety: Camps aim to ease young worries


The winter weather may have just arrived in North Jersey, but for parents, it’s already time to start thinking about summer: It’s camp fair and open house season.

The decision on where to send the kids can be tough for any family, but for parents of kids battling anxiety, it can be even more difficult. While sleepaway camp can be particularly daunting, even traditional day camp or a specialty camp can be challenging for children with anxiety issues.

But have hope, people in the camp community say: This is not “Meatballs” or summer camp of generations ago. No longer is every issue called “homesickness” or every crying kid ostracized by fellow campers and told to get over it by counselors.

“One of the things I point out to [concerned] parents is they will have more professional help at camp than at any place else they’re going to go to,” said Renee Flax, director of camper placement at the American Camp Association. “Camps are, for the most part, getting very used to dealing with this.”

As many as one in four children and teens have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, according to experts. And everyone experiences some kind of anxiety, especially in new or unknown situations.

An educated camp staff plus open and honest parents can create a successful summer for everyone involved, Flax said. If the camp staff doesn’t seem willing to have the conversation or accommodate

your child’s issues, that is not the right camp, she said.

Last summer a Bergen County teenager returned to a sleep-away camp she had attended without issue in past years. This time, however, something triggered her, and fears led to a breakdown that forced her to return home.

Instead of keeping her home, however, her parents, with the help of a therapist, stabilized her and sent her back to camp to not only work through the anxiety but make the summer a success. Her return to camp was possible only because of the trust in the staff.

“The counselors and leadership at this particular camp, they must have seen it all,” said her mother. “They were so great.”

Open communication and a partnership between the parents and camp made it possible for the girl to return and make it through successfully — albeit not easily.

Not all parents, however, feel comfortable being completely honest.

Need for candor

“I think the hardest thing becomes for parents to just really be candid with the camp director,” Flax said. “They sometimes don’t want to admit to the issues their child is having, and that’s the real mistake here. A camp doesn’t know your child. They don’t know what your child has been going through all year. If you don’t share that information with them, you’re sending your child to a camp on the blind, and it’s a real disservice to the child involved.”

Parents aren’t just being paranoid when they don’t want to note a child’s anxiety or therapy on a camp form, according to Bergen County child psychologist Matthew Goldfine.

“There is still a stigma,” he said.

The good news, though, is that things are better at most good camps, he added.

“Most camps in today’s day and age are very sensitive to these things, thankfully,” he said.

As camp directors have seen more and more anxiety and stress in their campers, they have sought advice from one another and professionals in recent years. They talk about “triggers” and “coping skills.”

“If you polled subjects at camp conferences over the last 10 years and were looking for what are the trends and what were directors talking about, reaching out to child professionals for advice on, I would say anxiety is at the very top of the list,” said David Fleisch­ner of Camp Scatico in the Hudson Valley.

Day camps are educating themselves and their staffs as well.

“We do a three-day orientation prior to summer, and we go through every scenario in a child’s day, and one of the main things we do talk about – especially for new campers – is the anxiety level you might find, the hurdles they have to overcome,” said Mitchell Kessler of Spring Lake Day Camp in Ringwood.

“One of the things we do as well, prior to camp, is we run a preview day for all new campers. What they can do when they get here, meet our staff, counselors. Anything they’re feeling anxious about we can try to eliminate or diminish as much as we can before we start.”

Honest assessment

At Camp Wicosuta in New Hampshire, director Corey Dockswell said they have changed their enrollment form questions for parents and campers in an attempt to get the most honest assessment. Last year they added a counselor orientation session on helping kids with anxiety.

While Dockswell estimates she has only a handful of kids whostruggle with anxiety and stress out of the 300 girls at camp each summer, the training is not just for dealing with children with diagnosed issues, she said. Anxiety is normal and can strike at any time — especially as children try new experiences and begin to assert their independence.

“Even a child who is not anxious can get to the top of the zip line and have a panic attack,” she said.

If parents are wondering whether their kids are ready, they should look for some indications of ability to get through situations similar to camp, according to Goldfine. For a residential camp, see how well a child handles sleepovers or overnight school trips. Parents must decide not if it will be easy — there may be a couple of nights of tears — but if their child can get through it and have a good experience.

A familiar person — friend, sibling or counselor — can help, Goldfine said. That goes for both sleep-away and day camps, where there aren’t any nights to deal with, but where kids with anxiety might struggle during certain activities.

‘Added social support’

If a child isn’t ready for a typical camp, Rockland Jewish Family Service runs the non-sectarian Exceptional Camps at Ramapo College in Mahwah for kids and teens who need “a little extra social or emotional support throughout the summer,” according to Michele Koenig, who runs the social skills program during the year at RJFS and started the teen summer camp six years ago. The program for younger kids is going into its third summer.

“The vision behind the camp is we provide a traditional camp experience with the added social support that those kids need,” said Koenig, noting that there is typical camp stuff like swimming, sports and trips, along with alternative activities such as science and art. “We’re able to individualize attention a little bit more, give professional support.”

The camps started after Koenig heard kids talk about how much they hated camps and parents came to her to share stories and ask if she could extend the RJFS programs through the summer.

“What I see play out every summer, which is to me the best part, these kids truly think they’re just at camp,” she said. “To them, there’s no special component.”

A successful stint at camp, any camp, can stay with kids long beyond the summer.

“I think camp is invaluable,” Dockswell said. “Being in a supportive environment to test and gain independence creates a foundation of confidence they take with them for life.”