I spent seven of the best summers of my life at camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. As an adult, I became a public health professional turned ADHD advocate, spiritual seeker, essayist and author – and a mother of three.
As they say, “l’dor v’dor,” from generation to generation: one of the key experiences I hoped to pass along to my kids was the opportunity to become summer campers. Camp had a pivotal and positive impact on my childhood. I wanted my kids to have the same.
For kids with ADHD, camp can be a wonderful experience, but planning ahead is critical. We’ve all heard of shalom bayit, or peace in the house. Following these simple rules can help lead to a summer of shalom kvutza, or “peace in the cabin.”
Choose a camp that’s a good fit
The outlook of the staff is what makes summer camp a safe and magical place. Some camps focus on building athletic prowess, others on musical talents, others on religious values and some feature all of the above. For ADHD kids, the opportunity to be away from home, manage their own schedules, navigate conflict, act as a team player and even locate and clean their Shabbat clothes can have a lasting positive impact on their confidence all year long. With a little extra support, camp life creates a sense of accomplishment and acceptance that can truly transform a child. At the camp my children attend, community and inclusion are values. Make sure your values are in line with those of the camp to ensure a successful summer.
Communicate honestly with camp
Most sleepaway camps ask for a list of medications your child needs while away from home. But not all ask about the child’s experience with transitions. Is he or she a good sleeper? How flexible is your child about food? Is he a good conflict resolver? Is she particularly sensitive? Kids with ADHD may feel anxious about not knowing the schedule or with whom they are sharing a bunk. Painting an accurate picture of your child’s strengths and weaknesses will help camp staffers prepare for a successful session.
Plan ahead with your child
Think ahead and help your child solve problems in advance. My son had a hard time falling asleep. Leaving for camp with an Itty Bitty book light and two novels helped ensure that he not only had a way to help himself fall asleep that wouldn’t disturb others, but also that he wouldn’t have to worry about it. Simply knowing he was going off to camp with a book light made an anxious situation a lot less anxiety-provoking.
Let go of the small stuff
ADHD kids can have a particularly difficult time keeping track of belongings. With swimsuits, towels and jackets going on and off, camp can be a real challenge in this regard. Let your kids off the hook early. Pack old, inexpensive items and label everything. That way they know – in advance – “if you can’t find it, it’s no big deal.” Anxiety can be a real problem for kids with ADHD. I don’t want mine spending the summer worrying about losing stuff. Some items won’t make it home – no big deal. This puts their minds at ease.
Have a “peace plan” in place
Multiple bunkmates, lack of sleep, a change in eating habits and a lot of stimulation can be challenging for any child. For ADHD kids, this can cause distress. As they acclimate to the camp environment, what can your child do if they are feeling out of sorts? Is there a quiet corner they can hang out in? A counselor-buddy they can talk to? Can they drop by the health center and say hi to a nurse? Pop in the office and sit on the couch?
Being caught off guard can be really hard for an ADHD kid. Work with the camp to create a “peace plan” and communicate it to your child. It empowers them to know how to handle their feelings and, once again, knowing the plan significantly reduces anxiety.
Making sure the camp’s values are in line with yours, sharing honestly with camp about your child’s strengths and weaknesses, and helping your child come up with solutions for possibly challenging situations boosts their confidence and increases the chances that your child will have an awesome summer. And isn’t that what camp is all about?
Robin Finn is a lifelong lover of summer camp. She lives with her husband and family in Los Angeles. Her first novel, Restless in L.A., is the story of a midlife mother struggling to raise three challenging children and deal with the fallout after she reconnects online with an old love from college. To learn more, visit robinfinn.com.