How to talk about overnight camp being cancelled and what to do now

It feels like spring is here at last. We are finally getting outdoors after spending over two months social distancing mostly inside due to the cold weather. Taking long walks, playing in the backyard, riding bikes and gardening – it feels a bit like freedom. The warm weather reminds us that there is a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. With the end of the school year in sight our emotions have been soothed with thoughts of the traditional joys of summertime. This, of course includes overnight summer camp – a welcome and beloved opportunity for our children and teens to enjoy special friendships, living more closely with nature and novel experiences away from home. For some teens, camp is “home away from home’.

Overnight Camps Cancelled

Last week, our dreams were dampened with the announcement that all overnight summer camps in Ontario have been cancelled this year. This news resulted in anger, disappointment, worry and heightened stress for many of us – children and parents. All of the reactions are fair. For parents, there were so many questions: how do we tell our children? How do we cope? How do we help them cope? What are we going to do now?

These last few months presented us with many challenges and also with opportunities. The same holds true for this coming summer – challenges and opportunities.

How do we tell them?

Let’s tackle those big questions: How do we tell them? (For those who already have shared the news, please keep on reading, there are some things that will help as you continue to navigate this together.)

Keep in mind that you’ve been through this before – or at least something very close. Just a few months ago you sat with your children and discussed the closure of school, cancellation of their sports and group activities, movie theatres and get-togethers with friends and even mundane trips to the mall and grocery store. Somehow they managed (we did too) and we all survived. So, when discussing the cancellation of summer camp, use a similar approach – be truthful, direct and empathic.

Be sure to talk to each child individually if they are at different ages and stages – camp means something quite different to an 8-year-old than it does to a teenager.

Doctor John Gottman developed a five-step process called Emotional Coaching, a strategy that I have found helpful and appropriate for all relationships, including parent-child.

  1. Be aware of emotions.
  2. Recognize an expression of emotion as an opportunity for connection.
  3. Listen with empathy and validate feelings.
  4. Label emotions with words.
  5. Set limits. “It’s okay that you are angry but it is not okay to yell at me.” or “Let’s take 20 minutes to cool down.”

Do not worry about the exact wording. Keep in mind that some respond to emotional tone more the specific words, so be aware of your emotional message. This is another Gottman strategy that helps to have conversations about sensitive topics.

You might start with something like, “I wanted to share with you something I heard today that made me feel disappointed, concerned etc. I am sure you will have your own feelings and reactions to it.”

Continue with an empathic comment such as “I know how much you look forward to summer camp. Unfortunately all overnight summer camps have been cancelled this year because of COVID-19.”

Allow them the opportunity to share their feelings and be sure to make use of the five step emotional coaching process (outlined above). Do not rush this process – it takes time to fully express hard feelings and know that it might not fully happen in the same sitting.

The other big question – what do we do now?

Now for some ideas to help your family see the “bright side,” and gain a more positive perspective of our circumstances. Hopefully, we have all been able to recognize some of the good things that stemmed from our family “lock down” experiences. Have a conversation as a family about the positive things that have resulted from the lockdown experience – more family time, talk time, game time, and other family activities. Then transition to a parallel discussion about having even more positive and potentially exciting opportunities to experience as a family over the summer. Brainstorm together encouraging each family member opportunities to make suggestions of activities they would enjoy. Then review the list together and prepare a final list of “Special Summer Family Experiences”. Make a poster of the activities and display it where it everyone will see it.

Some ideas to get you started:

  • Allow for active and relaxing activities.
  • Explore nature, build, read stories, play board games, practice sports, do art projects.
  • Include chores and home projects – make laundry a family experience, paint a room, plant a garden.

Many of these active-learning, project-based opportunities can provide great fun, practical life skills training and can also foster closer family connections. Don’t feel a need to be over-programmed – remember the stress experienced by all to arrive to all those scheduled activities on time. Set aside time for your family to experience the incredible freedom that a day with no plans at all brings. Keeping it “simple” can be a welcome experience during these “complex” times.

These have been challenging times for us all. Sensitivity and compassion to disappointments, sadness and even loneliness is essential. However, recognizing and making use of “silver-lining” opportunities can not only soften the difficult feelings but also provide greater emotional warmth and stronger, value-based family relationships.

I hope that everyone stays healthy and safe this summer.

Please feel to contact me with any questions at drrman@rogers.com.

Dr. Mark J Rothman; Registered Psychologist

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Dr. Mark Rothman is a Registered Psychologist based in Toronto, who obtained his Doctoral degree in Psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City in 1987.  He then completed a doctoral internship and post-doctoral fellowship at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York. He has provided psychotherapeutic services for children, adolescents and families for over 25 years and has worked in a variety of settings, including: schools, universities, mental health clinics, residential treatment centers and private offices.