Summer camp is a great opportunity for your child who has/had an eating disorder to feel a sense of belonging, community, and independence. And since these things are essential to mental health, summer camp can be a great prescription for moving forward and embracing recovery. Here are six things to consider if you’re thinking about sending your child with an eating disorder to summer camp.
1. Medical stuff first
Before your child can go to camp, they need to be cleared medically and psychologically. This doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be 100% free of their eating disorder, but they should, at a minimum, not be medically underweight or have active complications like low heart rate, blood pressure, etc.
Talk to your child’s doctor, therapist, and dietitian and get their opinion. Will the challenge of summer camp be a positive experience, or is it too risky? It’s really helpful for kids who have eating disorders to be with peers and to feel connection and belonging, and summer camp is a great place for that. It’s also a great place to try their healthy coping skills and stretch their independence. So be sure to ask your providers to consider the benefits as they make their recommendation.
Now, check your gut: do you think your child is stable? This is an intuitive choice you need to make, so read the rest of this article and then spend some time sitting with your options.
Finally, consider which duration is best for your child. This may not be the year for a month-long camp, but perhaps a week or two weeks would work. Consider the duration based on your intuition of how stable your child’s recovery is right now.
2. Monitoring for trouble
Ideally your child should be stable enough in their recovery and you have chosen a duration that makes sense based on where they are in recovery. Those are important considerations, since I suggest you avoid making too many special accommodations during their time at camp.
You may ask the camp nurse to weigh your child mid-way through a 2-week camp session if you believe that is necessary. You may also ask the camp staff if they can monitor whether multiple meals are skipped and alert you to that.
But if you are asking for a lot more than that to accommodate your child’s eating disorder, it may be a sign that this is not the right year to do summer camp. The camp cannot step in and take the place of yourself or your child’s treatment team. If your child needs more support for their eating disorder, then it may not be the right time for summer camp.
3. Sending special food and other accommodations
Summer camps are structured and have a lot of rules. Those rules are there for a reason. In some ways, they are there to make the camp counselors’ jobs easier. But in a lot of ways those rules mirror social expectations and norms. Rules are a natural and essential part of belonging to a group.
If you find yourself making special requests for your child because of their anxiety and eating disorder, then pause. Look out for your desire to accommodate your child and consider if it’s serving recovery or maintaining the disorder.
I suggest that as much as possible you set the expectation that your child is a normal camper. They should eat the same food, have the same sleeping arrangements, do the same activities, and have the same communication standards as other campers. That, after all, is the point of camp. They are all in the same place at the same time, living under the same rules and expectations. That’s how camps build a sense of belonging. And belonging is exactly what your child needs to embrace recovery.
Avoid sending them to camp with a special diet or sewing a secret cell phone into their pillowcase for emergencies. The point of camp is that every camper is the same – that’s the beauty of it, and that’s where your child will gain the benefit of belonging and community. If you treat them differently, they will not get those benefits.
Finally, do not make an agreement in advance that you will pick them up early if they get uncomfortable. You need to set the expectation that they will stay the whole time. Don’t send them if you don’t believe they can make it. An anxious child will naturally feel anxious at camp sometimes. They will naturally reach for an “out” if it’s there and ask you to come and get them. Make sure you haven’t set up the expectation that they should call you to remove them from camp at the first hint of discomfort. Getting through discomfort is one of the benefits of summer camp.
4. Dealing with their worry
The most important thing about summer camp is to expect your child to be worried. Your child will feel worried and anxious about leaving home, about being in a different environment, and about meeting other people. Help them understand that worry is a normal part of trying new things, but that we don’t let worry make important decisions for us. The goal is for them to feel worried and do it anyway. That’s a key skill to emotional regulation and mental health, so don’t miss the opportunity to talk to them about it.
Don’t try to answer every question, instead, help them learn to tolerate the uncertainty of doing something different. Think of this as an emotional training camp. They will learn to handle worry, and they’ll probably have a great time while doing it.
Finally, avoid automatically jumping in to solve problems that are your child’s problems to solve. For example, if they are worried about making friends, don’t tell them how to make friends. They know how to make friends! They are just worried. And it’s OK to be worried. Help them feel their worry and solve their own problems rather than jumping in to solve their problems for them. That’s not the path to independence or emotional health.
5. Dealing with your worry
You are going to be worried. Your child is going to summer camp and they have/had an eating disorder. Expect your worry to show up, and deal with it with other adults, not your child. Look for your own anxiety and seek support from people you trust.
If you tend to get worried, then be careful about the daily photo dumps that often come from camps. These photo dumps can send parents into a tailspin of worry. Desperately trying to find your child in the crowd and then carefully evaluating their facial expression and those on the faces around them can ruin your whole day. Review the photos (if you care to) when your child gets home. I’m certain you picked a safe camp. You don’t need to monitor your child’s safety through photographs!
Finally, be open to everything being fine. You will have worry, and your child will have worry, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have a great time at summer camp. They may surprise you … I hope they surprise you! Let them!
6. Communicating while they’re there
The camp should have clear rules about communication between campers and parents. Like all camp rules, these are structured on purpose to build belonging among the campers as well as independence for your camper. If you violate these rules, you risk the greatest benefits of going to camp.
First, don’t call the camp every day to check on your child. They will call you if there’s a problem!
Next, don’t set up special communication with your child. Remember that the rules and norms are there for a reason, and you should follow them. I’m a big fan of camps that have a zero cell phone policy and don’t have campers call home mid-week. Let your child find the freedom, joy, and uncertainty of not reaching for their phone every 5 minutes to check in.
Finally, don’t panic if your child tells you they don’t like something. It’s normal not to like stuff! If your child complains about something, wait at least 24 hours before trying to resolve a possible problem. Wait as long as you can. Unless the camp calls you, then it’s probably fine. We’re talking about one week, not months. Each day at camp is different, and a miserable camper on Day 1 could easily be a happy camper on Day 3. Hang in there and trust the process.
The goal of camp
The goal of summer camp is to help your child build belonging and connection with peers as well as personal autonomy and independence, all of which will support eating disorder recovery. You want them to navigate the world as a healthy child who can tolerate being a little uncomfortable, grumpy, unshowered, and sunburned sometimes. That’s normal life! Camp doesn’t have to be perfect to be great!
That said, if everything I’ve said has made you very nervous, then maybe wait this year out and try again next year when you’re both feeling more stable.
Interesting article: Now Is the Time to Reboot Summer Camp
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.