How to help Scouts who have anxiety about attending summer camp

Two adults welcoming Scouts to summer camp
Graphic by Shutterstock/Mascha Tace

Anxiety is a perfectly naturally emotion for some Scouts to feel in the weeks and months leading up to summer camp. The good news is, we – the adults – are the perfect people to help.

Summer camp is great, not just for Scouts, but also for parents and leaders. That doesn’t mean, however, that everything is going to go 100% smoothly. In fact, overcoming those obstacles is a big part of what makes it so great.

Your child could very well leave for camp a nervous wreck and return home a stronger, confident young person. That doesn’t mean they can’t use some support in the meantime.

The key to helping your child get over pre-camp nerves is to acknowledge their feelings and give them tools to help them tame them, according to the Child Mind Institute, one of the leading nonprofits specializing in children’s mental health.

Don’t tell them simply, “Don’t worry about it — you’ll be fine,” for example. Instead, tell them that you understand their concerns, and you’re ready to have a conversation about it whenever they are.

Here are some ways you can discuss this topic with your nervous Scout.

Emphasize the comradery of summer camp

Chances are, your child will not be the only anxious camper.

One of the biggest supports your child will have at summer camp is their fellow Scouts. It’s important for them to know that you aren’t asking them to do this alone. Scouts at summer camp use the buddy system, which means the only time they’ll be alone will be in the bathroom and shower. They also will be divided into patrols, which provide a built-in social support system.

There’s a good chance your unit leader already plans on stressing the importance of Scouts supporting each other at camp. It’s also totally fine to bring it up yourself.

If you’re attending camp with your child, it’s OK to provide some support. I would not, however, recommend that you be the primary source for support. That’s what those Scout buddies are for.

Involve your Scout in getting prepared for camp

You probably already have a gear list for summer camp. Don’t go out and buy it all (or bring it down from your attic, if you already own it) without involving your Scout in the process.

Keeping your Scout involved in the preparation process teaches them valuable lessons about being prepared while also giving them a sense of control about what’s happening.

I can’t stress this enough! Pack with them, not for them. Yes, you want to make sure they have essentials like medication, bug spray and sunscreen. But if they get home from school one day and their camp bag is already packed and zipped up and ready to go, that could only heighten their anxiety by making them feel out of control of what they’re about to experience.

A Scouts BSA member practicing archery
Archery is just one of the many activities offered at Scout summer camp. Photo by Roger Morgan

If you yourself have concerns, discuss it with another adult, not your child

Just like it’s normal for kids to be nervous about camp, it’s also normal for parents to be nervous about sending their kids off to camp. Just don’t share those feelings with your Scout. Instead, talk with other Scouting parents who have experienced this before, along of course with a spouse or other close adult friends.

It’s OK to ask the right questions

DON’T: “What are you more scared of, riding in a boat, or sleeping in the woods?”

DO: “How are you feeling about boating?”

DON’T: “Are you nervous about being away from home?”

DO: “Are you excited to get to spend an entire week with your friends without having to worry about homework and chores?”

Encourage your child to come up with some solutions to their anxiety

One way to do this would be to ask them to create goals for themselves to achieve while at camp. How many merit badges do you want to earn? How many new friends do you want to make?

Another option is to formulate a plan of staying in touch – if the camp allows it – or at least writing thoughts in a diary or journal that they can share when they get home.

Go over what the daily camp routine will be like

Look over a map of the camp with your Scout. Point out the different areas that are reserved for camping, how they’ll walk to the dining hall, how they’ll get to the waterfront, which merit badge classes are where, and things like that.

Preparing them for what the average day at camp will look like can go a long way.

And be sure and point out where the fun stuff is. “Oh look, here’s the gaga ball pit. And here’s the basketball court. And here’s the snack bar where they sell candy.”

Scouts canoeing at summer camp
Photo by Phil Davis

Make sure your child is physically prepared for camp, too

BSA summer camps feature strenuous activities such as hiking, swimming, biking and rowing. Complete your Annual Health and Medical Record, and keep your child active by participating in Scout outings and other active events during the spring.

Know when your child’s anxiety could be something more serious

Again, some anxiety is totally normal.

But, according to the Child Mind Institute, “You might be concerned if they demonstrate physical symptoms of fear: cold or clammy hands, butterflies, faintness, headache or nausea. Excessive tearfulness and hiding are also signs that something out-of-the-ordinary is going on. If a child’s reaction is so severe that it interferes with normal functioning, it might be time to consult a mental health professional.”

When it’s time for them to leave, don’t linger

The last thing your Scout needs is a long, drawn-out goodbye when they’re trying to get on the bus for the best week of their life. Instead, give them a kiss, hug, handshake, fist bump … or whatever you would normally do … and then simply let them go.

I’m betting that when they come back, all of that nervousness and anxiety will be forgotten.

About Aaron Derr 448 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.