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Updated 10:00 AM March 5, 2007




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New thinking needed about homesickness

A new report urges parents and children's doctors to change their thinking about homesickness among children, to see it as a nearly universal but highly preventable and treatable phenomenon, rather than an unavoidable part of childhood.

The report, published in the journal Pediatrics, gives parents and physicians specific guidance to help anticipate and lessen the distress that homesickness can cause among kids and teens at summer camps, hospitals, boarding schools and colleges.

The paper's authors are a clinical psychologist at one of the nation's leading boarding schools, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and a U-M physician who specializes in camp health issues. They're also old friends who first met at summer camp more than 25 years ago.

It's the first time evidence about homesickness prevention and treatment, which has been gathered through years of psychological studies, has been presented for pediatricians and family doctors to use.

"For over 100 years camps and schools have patted homesick kids on the back, tried to keep them busy and hoped it will go away," says lead author Christopher Thurber, the staff psychologist at Exeter, research consultant to the American Camp Association and author of a camp handbook for parents. "But research shows that it's healthier and more effective to think about prevention."

One of the basic tips for parents and doctors is to talk to children ahead of any separation, whether for camp, college or a hospital stay of even a few days.

"What parents say—and what pediatricians say—beforehand matters, and is very important for the intensity of homesickness," says Dr. Edward Walton, assistant professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics who serves on the board of the American Camp Association and was lead author of a 2005 AAP guideline on summer camp health that was produced in conjunction with the ACA.

One of the most important things for parents and doctors to recognize, and to say to kids before any separation, is that it's normal, not strange, to feel homesick. In fact, research has shown that 90 percent of children attending summer camp feel some levels of homesickness. Further, 20 percent face a serious level of distress that, if untreated, worsens over time and interferes with their ability to benefit from a camp experience.

The ACA now publishes a DVD-CD set, "The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success," that makes these evidence-based homesickness prevention strategies publicly available for the first time. It also makes information available to parents online, as part of its effort to preserve, promote, and enhance the camp experience for children and adults.

The paper authors and the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on School Health that sponsored the report hope physicians will add homesickness counseling to children's camp and school physicals, and to the care of hospitalized children. They also point out special issues for children who have attention deficit disorder or developmental issues—for example, the importance of continuing the use of medications for those conditions while at camp.

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