How to Help Your Child Make Friends & Fully Participate in Summer Camp
Camps help many kids with ADHD forge friendships and build social skills. But the same social challenges that occur outside of camp — like avoiding certain social settings and refusing to participate in activities — can follow kids to camp. Take these steps to help your child branch out and fully engage in the camp experience.
Summer camp offers a rare opportunity for kids to build social skills and form long-lasting friendships. This promise is particularly attractive to parents of neurodivergent kids, for whom camp may offer a clean social slate.
Here are attendees' full responses to our poll question: "When you think about your child's summer plans, what are your top 3 priorities?"
Building up self-esteem doing what they love: 75%
Spending time being active outdoors: 74%
Making and spending time with friends: 62%
Trying new activities and pushing outside comfort zones: 43%
Connecting them to other neurodivergent peers: 22%
Maintaining academic skills built over the year: 17%
Traveling and seeing new places: 12%
Making up for academic skills missed during the year: 7%
Locating free or budget-friendly opportunities: 6%
Earning money through work outside the home: 1%
Read on for strategies to help your child connect with fellow campers, plus answers to your top questions about helping your child navigate social challenges at camp, provided by Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW, ADHD-CCSP, owner and director of Trip Camp.
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1. How can we help camp staff understand ADHD and how it affects my child's social skills?
Most children with ADHD do not need to attend a specialized camp program. That said, you should communicate with the camp about your child's social strengths and weaknesses, and how they might present at camp. Administrative staff should also educate counselors and camp staff about ADHD. This webinar provides an overview of common social challenges facing children and teens with ADHD, and is a great resource for camp staff.
2. Can camp staff help my reluctant, quiet child participate in activities?
Yes, and it's important that you clearly and proactively communicate your expectations to the camp. Tell them that you don't want your child sitting out of all activities, and that you expect the counselors to engage your child if they are sitting alone, wandering about, or otherwise not participating. (Camps will appreciate your transparency.)
The experience of camp is learning how to be in a group. That won't happen if your child is allowed to sit out of activities all day. When considering a camp, ask about their policies for engaging campers who do not want to engage in activities.
3. My child tends to gravitate toward younger peers or adults. Why is that, and how can we ensure my child bonds with same-age peers at camp?
Many children with ADHD who struggle socially will form attachments to younger kids over same-age peers because younger kids carry fewer social expectations. Older kids who may struggle with inflexibility, for example, can easily control the dynamic with younger kids. An older child also has the opportunity to act as a role model in settings with younger kids.
Children with ADHD may bond with adults for similar reasons. A patient and understanding adult will forgive a child's social slip up, like having a one-sided conversation about their favorite video game.
If this is your child, explain the situation to the camp, and emphasize that you'd like for them to help your child interact with similar-age peers. Ask staff to help your child enter a conversation or a play situation with peers.
4. Is it a bad idea to send my child to camp with a friend or with a sibling?
There is no right or wrong answer. This is up to you, the parent, and what you think will be helpful for your child. It's worth noting that some children with ADHD become protective and territorial, latching on to their friend and preventing both from branching out and making friends at camp.
5. The camp called to say that my child isn't participating in bunk/cabin chores. What can I do about that?
Ask the camp for more information. What do they mean when they say your child isn't participating? Is it that your child is trying to perform the chores, but struggling with sequence? It's OK to communicate to the camp that your child may need additional support to complete chores.
Then ask yourself: Did I teach my child how to perform this chore? The best way to avoid this problem is to ask the camp about the chores and independent skills they expect from campers. That way, you'll be able to practice at home before camp starts.
6. How can I help my child emotionally and mentally prepare for camp?
Many children with ADHD are visual learners. Try to get a visual preview of the camp before your child attends. You can book a tour of the camp, or you can visit the camp's website and look through pictures of the physical layout together. Be sure to look at staff photos as well so your child can recognize a familiar face once camp starts.
Talk with your child about the kinds of social issues that may occur in camp. They should know that not everyone might get along, that there might be disagreements, and that feelings might get hurt — but all of that is OK and part of the learning experience. (The point is not to scare your child, but to prepare them for reality.)
7. Should I "rescue" my child from camp if they feel uncomfortable?
Camp is a rewarding experience for children with ADHD, and overnight camps especially can be life changing for our kids. They get the opportunity to cultivate much-needed independent experiences and learn how to live with same-age peers. For kids who really struggle socially and have something of a "social history" at school, camp can provide them with a fresh start.
That said, children with ADHD tend to shy away from new experiences. They'll say no to the unfamiliar, and will often avoid stepping out of their comfort zone or experiencing temporary discomfort. (And there's a lot of that when anyone is in a new social situation.) As a parent, you must avoid saying anything to the effect of, "If you don't like it you don't have to stay." Allowing your child to escape a non-threatening situation is setting them up for failure. Instead, ensure your child of your confidence in their ability to succeed no matter what comes their way.
Be sure to avoid these common mistakes that can sabotage your child's camp experience:
micromanaging your child's camp experience
demanding to speak with your child over the phone
expressing your anxiety over their absence from home (often in the form of "I miss you so much"/"I can't wait until you're home."
If your child's camp experience doesn't work out as well as you had hoped, tell your child that not every camp will work for every kid, and that you'll try again at another camp next summer.
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