It's that time of year again when the question on every parents' lips is, "What is your child doing this summer?" For working parents the question can be especially anxiety provoking, since a summer with no plans and an absent parent or parents can spell boredom, trouble, or both for an adolescent or teen.
That question is especially fraught if you are considering sleep away camp and your child is battling an eating disorder or engaged in disordered eating. Marcia and I devote a section of our book to this issue, and I thought it would be timely to pass on some of our tips for parents who are in this situation.
Your child should be able to do all of the following independently before she or he is allowed to attend an extended sleep away camp session:
- Eat regularly and adequately
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Control disordered behaviors such as over-exercising and purging
Here are a few more pointers:
Do Your Homework, Ask Questions:
Find out if the camp has a protocol for dealing with kids with eating problems. It's common for parents to be reluctant to mention such problems for fear their children will be pigeon-holed as "problem kids." Don't hold back. If camp personnel are not comfortable with this information then it's not the right camp for your child.
Inform Your Treatment Team as Early as Possible
If your child is in treatment for an eating disorder, inform your treatment team of the possibility of camp as early as you can. The team may have reservations that you will need to address, or milestones your child has to achieve before the team is able to endorse her or him going to camp.
Make Staying in Camp Contingent on Healthy Eating and Exercise
If your child is recently recovered or is still battling an eating disorder, make it clear that if she does not maintain a safe weight at camp, or her health is jeopardized in any way, she will have to come home. It's important to have this frank discussion with your child before camp, and to map out a plan. It's equally imperative that you stick to your word. Not following through with agreed-upon consequences may be harmful to your child's heath. In addition, your credibility with her, as parents who can help her recover from an eating disorder, may be irreparably damaged.
Discuss Your Child's Situation with Camp Personnel before Camp Begins
Make clear what your worries are: are you concerned that your child might revert to patterns of over-exercising? Ask camp personnel to be on the lookout for this type of behavior, and give them permission to intervene if necessary, and alert you to any red flags. If your child needs weight checks or any other monitoring, arrange this in advance with the camp nurse.
Look at Summer Camp as a Test Run for Independent Living
When a child has made great strides in recovery from an eating disorder, it's important to give him a chance to succeed or fail on his own. Summer camp is the ideal controlled environment, where there is more freedom than being at home yet still the oversight of camp personnel who are familiar with your child's eating disorder history. Your chosen camp should provide an environment in which your child feels comfortable.
When Should You Limit or Prohibit Camp for Your Child?
If your child is on shaky ground, meaning she has just begun to battle an eating disorder, is in the midst of a serious disorder, or has recently relapsed back into a serious situation, then you have grounds for concern. In this situation, you may want to prohibit camp altogether and look for day camp alternatives. For less serious situations try a one-week camp experiment and see how it goes. Consult with your child's doctor, ideally a professional with a background in treating eating disorders, to help you decide on a reasonable and safe approach.
Make Going to Camp a Positive Motivator for Improvement
The opportunity to attend camp can give a child motivation to work hard in treatment. Help your child by accentuating this potential growth opportunity.
Good luck. We'd love to hear about your experiences with your child and summer camp.