Talking with your Special Needs Child about Summer Camp

Sending a child to summer camp for the first time can be nerve-wracking for any family. When a camper has extra needs, these worries can be amplified. How can you talk about camp with your child in a way that leaves both you and them feeling confident that they will have a successful experience? No matter what your child’s (or your) worries are about camp, keep these tips in mind as you prepare for this new opportunity.

The staff at camp are ready to help make the transition to camp smooth and successful. Starfish counselors are engagement experts with prepared activities, get-to-know-you games and conversation-starters that will help your camper grow connections from day one. They know a lot about your camper’s specific needs because they have already been given your camper’s set-up-for-success info.

Your camper is watching closely to see what you think about camp. If you’re excited about this opportunity, your camper will be too! Oftentimes, caregivers are even more nervous about camp than their camper. You can feel confident that after the extensive application process you endured to secure your camper a space in the summer, we will take good care of them and support both them and you through any bumps in the road. So, even if you’re worried about how things will go, avoid making comments that express anxiety or ambivalence about your child going away. Instead, express excitement, curiosity, and a sense of adventure about camp, and your child will too! In some cases, you might have to “fake it,” but it will be well worth it when you camper is able to confidently attend camp!

Tell campers that you trust staff to take good care of them. When kids feel like we’re working with their caregivers to make camp great, their desire to have fun and be successful at camp skyrockets. Campers feel more secure when they hear the same message from you and us. We suggest phrases along these lines to convey the message of trust to your camper: “I’ve heard that the counselors at camp are very good listeners.” “I already told the staff that you like to draw when you’re upset. They won’t forget.” “I know that the staff are going to take great care of you.”

Camp Starfish is different from camp in the movies. It is hard not to form preconceived impressions of camp from movies and TV shows such as The Parent Trap, Camp Rock, or Bunk’d. Camp Starfish holds all of the fun of these Hollywood camps, without the dramatized parts that may be scary for kids to think about in real life. Staff do not tease campers, the food is not creepy and gross, there is no bullying or pranking, nobody flies underwear up a flag pole, we do not tell scary stories or have bigfoots running around in the woods, and children are never left alone in the dark or in the forest – or ever, at all. Camp Starfish is a fun, safe place. 

Find out exactly what is on the worries list. Sometimes, when campers have questions about the unknown aspects of camp, this can turn into anxiety that leads to, “I don’t want to go.” Helping kids get specific about their “worries list” will help you to clear up some of the uncertainty. Many of the concerns kids have are concrete and have to do with getting their basic needs met the way they do at home. Some things campers might be thinking about but not know how to ask/verbalize: 

What if I get hungry or thirsty?

How will I get clean clothes?

How will I know that you are coming back to get me?

Who is going to help me tie my shoes/braid my hair/cut my food up?

Validate campers’ feelings of nervousness instead of trying to convince them otherwise. Then, explain camp in relation to how things work at home to help. For example, explaining that just like how an adult helps them cut up their food to eat for dinner at home, a counselor sitting next to them at the meal table in the dining hall may do that for them instead. Being able to visualize will help campers build their confidence and feel reassured that someone else understands their concerns. 

Experience has shown that campers are most successful when they believe they will be! To this end, our staff train and work extremely hard to help campers overcome the homesickness and separation anxiety that naturally creeps up the first days at camp. While we would never keep a child at camp who was truly experiencing prolonged emotional distress, for the majority of children, the feelings associated with homesickness and transition anxiety can be successfully managed and overcome, and camp can be a positive growth experience. 

Please do not promise a pick-up deal in case your camper doesn’t like camp. The simple fact that such a plan is in place undermines the confidence you are working to instill in your camper, and it also implies that they might not like the new experience. Instead, try validating their nervousness and reiterating the faith you have in them to make it through camp. Encourage them to talk to their camp counselors when they are feeling homesick, and assure them that they can write postcards home to you and that you will do likewise. 

All for one and one for all. Camp staff cannot read minds. If campers need something to change about their camp experience, we can’t help if we only find out about it after they return home. Encourage your camper to view camp staff as adult allies whom they can tell when something is not quite right. 

We’re on your side. We assure you that if any concerns do arise, we will work proactively and compassionately with you and your child to ensure the most appropriate and comfortable outcome for all. Worries are normal, but the most important thing to remember is that camp is fun! It is a respite experience that provides an opportunity for campers to build relationships and work on their social and emotional goals. Getting ready for camp with that sentiment in mind will ease a lot of fears. 

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“No matter what your child’s (or your) worries are about camp, keep these tips in mind as you prepare for this new opportunity.”

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Danielle Lubbers

Danielle joined Camp Starfish in the spring of 2023 as Camp Director. Originally working with the Girl Scouts of the Chesapeake Bay, Danielle has ten years of experience providing programming to children, outdoor skills training for adults, and directing overnight summer camp experiences.

In her spare time, Danielle enjoys spending time with her two-year old Dalmatian, Mia. Danielle’s favorite activity at camp is raft building, as she enjoys seeing campers and staff work together to complete a team goal. Her favorite Camp Starfish Tool is “We are here to learn, grow, and have fun!”

Staff photo of David

David Mahnken

David Mahnken is Camp Starfish’s Mental Health Consultant. He provides staff training each summer on topics such as self-care, trauma-informed care practices, and health & wellness. David also provides support and consultation to the organization throughout the year. David holds a BA from St. Olaf College and an MSW from Simmons University. David is a LICSW who works in emergency services in addition to his own private practice in Massachusetts.

Prior to becoming a social worker, David’s first experience at camp was as a counselor in the early 2000s before becoming an administrator and member of the year-round team. His favorite camp activity is swim-I (swim instruction), and his favorite Camp Starfish Tool is: “We make camp a safe place.”

Staff photo of Joe

Joe Clark

As the Assistant Director at Camp Starfish, Joe is a seasoned professional who is well-versed in all aspects of camp life. With five years of summer work at Starfish, he brings extensive experience and expertise to the camp year-round. Joe is from the UK, and holds a degree from Keele University. Joe works as a support worker in the UK, providing care to individuals with disabilities, since 2019. Joe also engages in volunteer work, including spending three months in Abrobiano, Ghana.

Joe is known at camp for his charming English accent, which campers often try to replicate! His favorite camp activity is playing soccer (football) on the field, and his favorite Camp Starfish Tool is: “I take responsibility for my actions.”

Staff photo of Rachel

Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts is the Director of Staff Experience at Camp Starfish, responsible for all things staffing and groups. With a degree in Anthropology, and a Certificate in Global Citizenship from Franklin Pierce University, Rachel brings a unique perspective to her role. She oversees hiring, onboarding, retention, and staff appreciation for the 100+ seasonal staff at Camp Starfish each summer. Rachel has been a part of the Starfish team since 2016, working in various seasonal roles. She joined the Year-Round Team full-time in 2022.

As a lifelong New Hampshire resident, Rachel enjoys hiking in the woods with her dog, Clover. Her favorite camp activity is Free Play, and her favorite Camp Starfish Tool is: “We respect each other’s differences.”

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Kristie Martin

Kristie Martin is Camp Starfish’s Program Director, responsible for ensuring that each camper receives a structured, supportive, and fun program during both summer and year-round weekends. With her degree in Applied Psychology & Human Development from the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, Kristie has a deep understanding of child development and uses this knowledge to create a nurturing environment for all campers.

Kristie grew up in the Monadnock region and takes pride in being a local. Kristie’s favorite camp activity is the Camper Talent Show, which she believes is the perfect opportunity for campers to showcase their skills and feel comfortable sharing with the community. Her favorite Camp Starfish Tool is, “I try my best, I do not have to be the best.”

Staff photo of Sarah

Sarah York

Sarah York is the Director of Operations at Camp Starfish, joining the team in the Spring of 2022. She brings with her a wealth of professional experience working in both mental health and human resources. Sarah’s role at Camp Starfish is crucial in ensuring that camp runs smoothly, and she is available to assist families every step of the way through the registration process. If you call the Starfish office, Sarah will likely be who you speak with first!

With her dedication to helping others and her commitment to creating a positive camp experience for every child, it’s no wonder that her favorite Camp Starfish Tool is: “We are members of a team.”

Staff photo of Jamie

Jamie Mahnken

Jamie Mahnken is Camp Starfish’s Executive Director, and has been an integral part of the Camp Starfish community since 2010, serving in a variety of roles. With a degree in Business Administration and Organizational Leadership from Southern New Hampshire University, Jamie is committed to creating a safe and positive environment for every camper, staff member, and volunteer.

As a North Carolina native, Jamie enjoys spending time outdoors with her family. Her favorite camp activity is kayaking to Blueberry Island, which is a meaningful and memorable experience for many campers, as well. Jamie’s favorite Camp Starfish Tool is: “I am flexible and open to change.”