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ANXIETY: AN EMOTION WORTH HAVING

As parents, it is sometimes difficult to see our child’s anxiety as a good thing. We are trained (or convince ourselves) we can form a protective bubble around them that’ll somehow reduce their angst. But parents are shortchanging children this way. Rather than avoiding stress, we should focus our energies on helping them cope with it instead.

New activities, such as day or overnight camps, can be both fun and stressful. While exposing our youngsters to unfamiliar people or dropping them off in new surroundings may raise some concern, you can help to manage the stress. First, identify your own anxiety level. Are you the hovering type? Do you follow the axiom ‘sink or swim’? (As usual, the ideal is somewhere in the middle). If you are a nervous parent to begin with, sending your child away overnight for a summer camp experience is probably an adventure you need to build up to.

Stepwise stress Management. Start with a half-day or day option first, then gradually extend the times away from home. Practicing overnights in a familiar setting (i.e., a friend’s home) is always a good strategy. Second, consider your child’s temperament. Kids vary greatly in their tolerance for novelty. Some jump in feet first and withstand failure with barely batting an eye. Other children are slow-to-warm up and prefer to observe their peers before joining in. Socially, camps provide exposure to a huge range of ‘normal’. If your extraordinarily shy child were paired with an outgoing child, how could you help him/her cope?

Another factor to consider is simply maturity. In general, kids adjust faster to change as they get older. It’s important to match the ‘developmental level’ of your child to the proper camp setting. Note that I didn’t say ‘age’. Lots of activities are indeed age graded, but to me the more important barometer is the child’s maturity level. Before enrolling your child into any program, consider the following questions:

• How well/easily does my child separate from me under normal circumstances? Has there ever been a prolonged separation?
• Is my child likely to express how s/he’s feeling to a trusted adult?
• Does my child need a lot of supervision/guidance with new activities?
• How comfortable is my child with asking questions when s/he’s unsure?
• Does my child get overwhelmed in busy settings?
• Can my child work alone and with others cooperatively?

New Beginnings. In many ways, summer activities can be a perfect way for a child to practice some of the above skills. Without the pressure of homework or feeling like they’re under the microscope of their usual classmates, some children feel freer to explore new avenues. Many kids find it refreshing to be in a setting where they can establish a new identity. The fact that you can sign up for a week at a time means that even if swimming turns out NOT to be your child’s favorite pastime, at least it’s a short-term decision. And there’s a huge benefit to doing your own homework. Ask for referrals from other families who’ve been through the experience. Especially if they know your own child, they may be your best guidance system.

Whether your child is shy or rearing to go, there’s always an advantage to activating the ‘buddy system’. Most kids will tell you that they worry less about what they’ll be doing and worry more about who they’ll be with. Sometimes just knowing they’ll be boarding the bus with a friend, even if they’re not together all day, is enough. So start canvassing friends early to see if they’re interested in signing up as well.

The Power of Choice. Try to involve your child early on in choosing the program. What seems attractive to you may be ‘uncool’ or intimidating to your child. Attend orientation sessions with your child to understand the potential program, meet counselors, and lessen the ‘unknown’ factor. (Perhaps they’ll see a face they know or really like the setting.) Be wary of choosing from marketing materials in the mail or judging quality from the program’s website. Children in particular are very susceptible to these schemes, readily believe what they see, and are disappointed. By researching places in person, you are teaching your child to be a savvy consumer AND identifying any issues ahead of time.

Lastly, even if your child seems unconcerned, sit down and discuss any questions s/he might have in advance. Sometimes they may seem silly to us as adults --- s/he might want to know where all the bathrooms are, for example. But the good news is many of the fears are based on information that is readily available and can be addressed easily. So when your child heads out that door for his/her first day, it’s bound to be a good one!

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Maureen O’Brien, PhD is a developmental psychologist, parenting coach and mother of twins. She founded www.destinationparenting.com, lectures on child development issues, and is the author of Watch Me Grow: I’m One-Two-Three (available at Amazon.com).