an Internationally Adopted Child
for a Sleep Away Camp
Gindis answers parents' questions
We sent our daughter for the first
time to sleep away camp just a few weeks ago. She had a very positive
experience by all accounts from those two weeks away. However, upon
returning (she's been home now for 7 days) she's been having big meltdowns
each day. She cries a lot about some little thing and is re-testing
boundaries all over again. I know that many parents report this about
their children when they return from camp. Do you have any insights
as to why this is happening with our daughter?
let me assure you that I consider a sleep-away camp as generally positive
experience for most children. These few weeks away from home may bring
a reinforced feeling of love and affection for both parents and children;
they may boost the process of individualization and autonomy in a preteen
child; they may refine the sense of self-worth and self-sufficiency
- the major elements of maturity in developing young person.
At the same time the experience
can be bitter and overwhelming for a child who is psychologically not
ready for it. For children who are internationally adopted at preschool
and school age, who were adopted relatively recently (within the last
three years) and those who have institutional background a sleep away
camp could be a serious ordeal.
Any sleep away camp has an environment
that may resemble orphanage. This may be a trigger for unpleasant memories
that in turn could bring symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder
resulted in unusual emotional responses to normal and typical situations.
For example, one boy got hysterical when asked to clean up a bunker
using a mop ("that looked exactly like one in our Detsky Dom"
as he explained to me lately). Another girl, as reported by her mother,
was saddened and sobbed non-stop on seeing girls lining up in canteen
with their plates in hands. You never know what could be a trigger for
PTSD for an individual child.
Another aspect of sleep away camp
is a separation anxiety. This is the first time when internationally
adopted children are leaving home and their families for a relatively
long time (from two to six weeks). A child may experience a renewed
feeling of acute separation anxiety and stress. The fear of abandonment
and rejection may be deeply rooted in psychological make-up of post-institutionalized
children and sleep away camp situation may bring these feeling to surface
and activate them. What is interesting, and reported by some adoptive
parents, most of their children were able to go through the camp experience
just fine and be even fond of this time, but on returning home could
melt down and regress significantly as if at home they 'let go"
of what they "hold back" in the camp.
In order to
prevent undesirable consequences of this, in general, useful experience,
I would like to suggest a few simple techniques that could be easily
modified by parents based on their children's age, gender, and personality:
your child in the process of selecting a camp. Consider
their opinion and have a discussion of different options. The child
must feel some control over the choices and participate in decision
making. Without this process, when you just announce your decision,
this may resemble a "rejection" situation. It is important
to understand what your child thinks and feels about the impending separation
before it actually occurs. If the child is adamantly against being sent
to an overnight camp, it is worth to consider other options and even
skip this summer. The fact that this experience was "just fine"
in your own childhood and/or for your other children, does not mean
much: what's right for one child isn't necessarily right for another.
some "mini-separation" (for
a night or two) before subjecting your child to a longer time away from
home. These mini-separations will boost your child's confidence and
help ease the transition to being away from everything familiar.
the "lines of communication" during camping:
make a schedule of calls, e-mails, or letters. Promise to respond promptly
and request the same from the child. Make this a bit dramatic and entertaining
by inventing a special "code" inserted into your writing ("we
will use a letter X to mean "campers" and a word "stamp"
for good thing and the letter combination "etch" for bad things",
etc.). Discuss an emergency contact situation as well. Write often,
focusing on the positives (the friends your child is making, the things
he or she is learning, etc.). Avoid dwelling on how much you miss your
child or on the list of things he or she is missing at home. This could
make the separation even harder.
a child a few symbolic things to keep in the camp
(e.g.: family picture, a favorite pillow, stuffed
animal or any other special object that reminds and symbolizes home.
Familiar items will help make your child more comfortable in the new
your child to write a diary of his/her
living far from home.
6. Talk extensively about your
plans AFTER the camp to create a feeling of continuity.
After the child has arrived from
the camp back home, do expect some adjustment difficulties: you have
now a more mature child with new experiences, though you still may expect
also some regression of behavior. You may be unpleasantly surprised
that your child learned a few expressions you would like him/her never
use again; some unwanted behavior patterns, etc. - all this is normal
on the way to maturity. The best way to address these issues is to get
back to your routine as soon as possible.