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The ADHD Camp Experience
Summer camp offers a rare opportunity for children to develop social skills and form lasting friendships. This promise is particularly attractive to parents of neurodivergent children, for whom camp can offer a clean social slate.
In fact, a recent survey during the ADD webinar, “Choosing the Best Summer Camps for Your Child with ADHD: A Guide for Parents,” revealed that 62% of caregivers said “make and spend time with friends” it was a top priority for their children’s summer season.
Here are attendee responses in full to our survey question: “When you think about your child’s summer plans, what are your top 3 priorities?”
- Build self-esteem by doing what they love: 75%
- Spend time being active outdoors: 74%
- Making and spending time with friends: 62%
- Trying new activities and getting out of comfort zones: 43%
- Connecting them with other neurodivergent pairs: 22%
- Maintain academic skills developed during the year: 17%
- Traveling and discovering new places: 12%
- Recover academic skills lost during the year: 7%
- Locating free or cheap opportunities: 6%
- Earning money through work outside the home: 1%
Read on for strategies to help your child connect with other campers, plus answers to your top questions about helping your child overcome 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 kids with ADHD don’t need to attend a specialized camp program. With that said, you should communicate with the camp about your child’s social strengths and weaknesses and how they might present themselves at camp. Administrative staff must also educate counselors and camp staff about ADHD. This webinar provides an overview of common social challenges children and teens with ADHD face and is a great resource for camp staff.
Understanding ADHD and Social Skills: Next Steps
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2. Can camp staff help my quiet and reluctant child participate in activities?
Yes, and it is important that you clearly and proactively communicate your expectations to the camp. Tell them that you don’t want your child to be left out of all the activities and that you hope the counselors will involve your child if he or she is sitting alone, wandering around, or not participating. (Camps will appreciate your transparency.)
The camp experience is learning to be in a group. That won’t happen if your child is allowed to sit outside of activities all day. When considering a camp, ask about their policies for involving campers who do not want to participate in activities.
Helping Shy Children Diversify: Next Steps
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3. My child tends to gravitate towards younger or older peers. Why is that and how can we make sure my child bonds with peers of the same age at camp?
Many children with ADHD who struggle socially will become more attached to younger children than to their peers of the same age because younger children have fewer social expectations. Older children who may struggle with inflexibility, for example, can easily control the dynamics with younger children. An older child also has the opportunity to act as a role model in settings with younger children.
Children with ADHD may bond with adults for similar reasons. A patient and understanding adult will forgive a child’s social slip-up, such as having a one-sided conversation about her favorite video game.
If this is your child, explain the situation to the camp and emphasize that you would like them to help them interact with peers of the same age. Ask the staff to help your child initiate a conversation or play situation with their peers.
Same Age Friendships: Next Steps
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4. Is it a bad idea to send my child to camp with a friend or sibling?
There is no right or wrong answer. This is up to you, the parent, and what you think will be helpful to your child. It’s worth noting that some kids with ADHD become protective and territorial, clinging to their friend and preventing both of them from branching out and making friends at camp.
Siblings and friends: next steps
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5. Camp called to say my son is not participating in bunk/cabin chores. What can I do about it?
Ask the camp for more information. What do they mean when they say your child is not participating? Is it that your child is trying to complete the tasks, but he has difficulty with the sequence? It is okay to let camp know that your child may need extra support to complete assignments.
Then ask yourself: Did I teach my child to do this task? The best way to avoid this problem is to ask camp about the tasks and independent skills they expect from campers. That way, you can practice at home before camp starts.
Tasks and Life Skills: Next Steps
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6. How can I help my child prepare emotionally and mentally 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 website and look at pictures of the physical layout together. Be sure to look at the staff photos as well so your child can recognize a familiar face once camp begins.
Talk with your child about the types of social problems that can occur at camp. They need to know that not everyone may get along, there may be disagreements, and feelings may be hurt, but all of that is okay and part of the learning experience. (The goal is not to scare your child, but to prepare him for reality.)
Camp Prep: Next Steps
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7. Should I “rescue” my child from camp if he feels uncomfortable?
Camp is a rewarding experience for children with ADHD, and overnight camps in particular can be life-changing for our children. They have the opportunity to cultivate much-needed independent experiences and learn to live with peers of the same age. For kids who really struggle socially and have a “social history” at school, camp can provide a fresh start.
That being said, kids with ADHD tend to shy away from new experiences. They will say no to the unknown and will often avoid stepping out of their comfort zone or experiencing temporary discomfort. (And there’s a lot of that when someone finds themselves in a new social situation.) As a parent, you should avoid saying something like, “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay.” Allowing your child to escape from a non-threatening situation is setting him up for failure. Instead, make sure your child is confident in her ability to succeed no matter what comes her way.
Be sure to avoid these common mistakes that can sabotage your child’s camp experience:
- micromanaging your child’s camping experience
- demand to speak to your child on the phone
- expressing their anxiety about 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 hoped, tell him that not all camps will work for all children and that you’ll try another camp again next summer.
Survival Camp: Next Steps
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How to make friends at camp: next steps
To learn more about how to ensure the best possible summer camp experience for your child, listen to the ADD Expert webinar, “Choosing the Best Summer Camps for Your ADHD Child: A Parent’s Guide” with Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW, ADHD-CCSP, which was broadcast live on February 16, 2023.
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