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Summer Camp, It Turns Out, Is Not for Everyone

My daughter wanted so badly to enjoy the dinosaur camp. But change is painful for the ADHD brain, and when hers slipped into Fight or Flight mode, things fell apart quickly. At least no one was seriously injured.

When researching ADHD camps, I found one billed as “A Land Before Time” — complete with dinosaur studies, slime making, and T-Rex-themed water play. It was absolutely perfect for my 4-year-old daughter. She attended last year and did great, but I was hesitant due to her recent behavior changes and ADHD diagnosis.

Still, she was persistent in wanting to attend, so I registered… and then worried. Was she positive she wanted to go? Would she remember the skills she learned during the school year? Would her ADHD flare out of control?

She assured us that she was super excited, and her behavior led me to believe she was ready… until the Sunday night before camp was set to begin.

Out of nowhere, she began targeting her little sister, throwing her toys across the room, and refusing to go to sleep at night. This, we soon learned, was just the beginning.

Monday morning arrived like a freight train. My daughter tends to ask an astronomical number of questions when her anxiety is high, so I could tell it was off the charts.

I asked her, yet again, if she was sure she wanted to go to camp. At this point, I was ready to eat the cost and cut our losses, but she insisted she wanted to be there. I should have trusted my gut on this one; instead, we learned the hard way.

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Drop off went decently well. She met her camp teachers, and explored the unfamiliar space. I attempted to give a little background on Gwen to the teachers, as well as strategies to use if she was seeming unsure of an activity and not wanting to participate, or if her impulsivity crept up and took over.

Off to work I went. Day One was OK with only a few instances reported by the teachers, which I chalked up to her new surroundings.

On Day Two, she woke up insisting she wanted to go back: “Yes, I really like camp!” My mom dropped her off and Gwen was pretty unwilling to go into the classroom. After she settled down, I was hoping she would have a positive day.

It is hard to understand how badly she wants to be there and to participate as a camper — because overwhelming that emotion is anxiety and an ADHD mind that can’t grasp the sudden change to her routine. Her fight or flight senses kick in and start screaming, “No!”

I can only imagine the chaos going on inside her tiny mind.

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We survived Day Two with more reports of poor behavior as well as a trip to go ‘settle down’ in the office and a walk around the building with a supervisor. That evening, she refused to sleep and resurrected bad behaviors that we hadn’t seen for weeks.

Day Three was dooms day.

“Hello, this is the camp director.”

An instant flush came over me when I answered the midday call. What had she done now?

“We have Gwen in the office.” Oh great.

“She threw a few chairs across the room, then punched and kicked a teacher as well as a few other campers.”

Heartbroken, I explained to the director that she has ADHD and sensory processing disorder (SPD), and that she attended last year with few issues. She was begging all year to go back so we tried again — against my better judgement. I should have listened to my gut, but we live and we learn and this was a good learning experience.

Needless to say, we did not return to camp.

On Day Four, sweet Gwen asked, “Do we have water day at camp today?”

I had to swallow hard and tell her that camp was over. “We are so proud of you for trying something new,” I said. “It’s hard to change your routine, but today you will be back at school and have water play there!”

I think she knows deep down she was asked to not return, which eats away at me as a mom, but she just responded with, “OK, Mom, I’m glad to see my friends at school today.” And continued eating her cereal.

In the end, it took a full two weeks to get back on track and to get behaviors back to our normal. I now believe I have a precursor for what to expect this coming school year as she will be transitioning to pre-k and a better understanding of how to attempt to broach the new routine.

Camp isn’t for everyone. If you’ve learned this lesson as well this summer, keep in mind that all we can do is praise our little ones for trying something new and appreciate their courage in their uniquely wired brain.

[How Sensory Processing Disorder Looks a Lot Like ADHD]