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Parents' Role in Homesickness

Posted on Tuesday, April 09, 2013

A study finds that greater parental anxiety about sending children to camp was associated with higher levels of homesickness.

Growing up at Camp Talooli, a summer camp for children operated by her parents, Kelly Peneston '10 never faced the separation from home and family that part-time campers did. She did, however, witness numerous drop-offs and the different ways families handled the separation. As a student taking Associate Professor of Psychology Julie Newman Kingery's Child Psychology course, her experiences and observations inspired Kingery to develop a research study on homesickness at overnight camps that she, Peneston and other students conducted at Camp Talooli.

The study was described in her research paper called "Parental Anxious Expectations and Child Anxiety Predicting Homesickness during Overnight Summer Camp," which was published in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership in 2012. In addition to Kingery and Peneston, it was authored by Stacey E. Rice '11 and Bernadette M. Wormuth '12. Several other students (now alums) assisted with this project. Their results were also published in Camping Magazine in the article "A Closer Look at Parents' Worries and Children's Anxiety as Risk Factors for Homesickness: Practical Strategies for Camp Staff and Families."

Kingery specializes in developmental and clinical psychology and her research interests include identifying risk factors for anxiety, as well as anxiety prevention and treatment programs for youth. She, too, has long had an interest in summer camps, anxiety and homesickness so she wanted to further explore Peneston's observations that parents who seemed more anxious when dropping off their children at camp seemed to be those whose children exhibited more signs of homesickness while at camp. The team started by looking at existing literature on homesickness, anxiety and related issues to see where there were gaps.

"Looking at previous research, we expected higher levels of both parent and child anxiety would be associated with more homesickness during camp," says Kingery.

The researchers administered questionnaires to both parents and children during the weekly camp check-in. The children were asked about symptoms of anxiety, such as worries about being away from parents, comfort with different social situations and whether they expected to be homesick while at camp.

Parents were asked about demographic information and previous camp experience the child may have had.  They were also asked about their level of concern, with questions such as: "I am worried about being away from my child this week" and "I have warned my child about things that could go wrong during his or her week at camp."

Surveys were given to 275 children again near the end of the camp experience and included questions used to measure homesickness: "I felt homesick this week," "I missed my family this week," and "I missed home this week."

In their study, Kingery and the team concluded: "Greater parental anxiety about sending children to camp was associated with higher levels of homesickness. Children's symptoms of separation and social anxiety at the beginning of camp were also correlated with more homesickness. Younger age, fewer previous years attending camp, and less involvement in the decision to attend were also associated with homesickness."

Kingery and the students also believed their findings indicated that some practical, proactive strategies employed by summer camp staff could reduce homesickness. Among these, they recommended enclosing a screening questionnaire in the registration packet to help identify families with higher levels of anxiety about camp in the weeks before check-in. Staff could then reach out to these families to address concerns or host pre-camp visits and orientation for them. They also recommended educating parents on coping strategies to share with children in advance.

"I don't think there's as much prevention as there could be," says Kingery. "Mild homesickness is fairly common, moderate to severe is less so. If it's severe enough, children cannot participate and they end up having to go home and miss all the benefits a summer camp program can provide. Additional research on homesickness is needed to identify other factors that camp staff could include in interventions aimed at reducing homesickness during camp."

Peneston is the assistant camp director and coordinator of the Talooli Integration Program at Camp Talooli.  She previously spent four years as the boating director and a resident camp counselor. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in school psychology at University of Massachusetts Amherst, having recently attained a master's degree in education there as well.

"The summer camp research study that I did with Professor Kingery was, by far, the best and most influential thing that I did while at HWS. Working closely with Professor Kingery, I learned a great deal about research design, data collection, statistical analysis, and professional writing. She was a great mentor at HWS and continues to be following my graduation from HWS," says Peneston. "When I began applying for and interviewing for Ph.D. programs in school psychology, I realized what a unique and powerful experience this was. Virtually none of my colleagues had been involved in a research project like this, particularly those that were coming right out of undergraduate school. I am certain that this project helped me get into graduate school."

Kingery received her B.A. from the University of Richmond, her Ph.D. from the University of Maine and did her postdoctoral work at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She specializes in developmental and clinical psychology. She has prior teaching experience as an affiliate faculty member at Loyola College in Maryland and an instructor at the University of Maine. During her postdoctoral fellowship at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Kingery participated in several National Institute of Mental Health grant funded studies evaluating the effectiveness of anxiety prevention and treatment programs for youth. Her research interests include exploring the influence of peer relationships on children's adjustment (particularly across the middle school transition), identifying risk factors for anxiety, and evaluating outcomes of school and community-based programs for youth.

The photo above features Associate Professor Julie Kingery talking with students in her Guilick Hall office.

 


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