My son just returned from sleepaway camp. It was not his first time away, but it was his longest. While he immensely enjoyed the daily activities, the nights for him were rough.
I was not surprised. He suffers from anxiety. The camp, cognizant of his challenges, worked thoughtfully and carefully with him to manage them. But his bunkmates were not aware, and I’m not exactly sure how appropriate and feasible it would have been to share it with them. Still, I wish they could have known a few things about my son.
First, I would tell them that the exuberant, friendly, athletic kid they encounter on the field during day is the same boy that bunks with them at night. The difference is that at night, his homesickness sets in, awakening his anxiety tendencies. He doesn’t mean to act bossy and controlling about the air conditioner temperature or the lights out policy, he simply feels lost and out of his element and is trying to gain some semblance of control.
I would try to explain what anxiety is — and how my son is learning to understand it, too. Sometimes it helps to describe anxiety as a passenger in the car, a passenger that my son cannot get rid of. The passenger is always there. Sometimes it’s louder, more pronounced, and sometimes it’s subtle, like a whisper. It may scream, “Look at me! I have the power.” It will not be controlled. As his parents, it is our responsibility to equip him with the tools necessary to accept and pummel through anxiety, especially those he may need to corral when he’s away from home.
But it’s a work in progress.
My guess is that you probably witnessed my son break down at some point — in the dining hall, on the field, or in the bunk, especially at night. It can be terribly uncomfortable for everyone, but especially for him.
And so I would urge you, dear bunkmates, not to judge him by his anxiety-induced explosive breakdowns. I know it’s awfully difficult not to, but he is trying so hard to be brave and feel in control. He doesn’t want you to see him this way.
If you do judge him, judge him on what he can control — his attitude, intellect, and insight — and not what he cannot. Please don’t confuse his anxiety for weakness. He works incredibly hard, more than you will ever know, to beat it.
And lastly, please be kind. If you don’t know what to say (and I know it’s not always easy), do it with your eyes. Encourage him with your smile. Take a ride in his imaginary car. There’s always room enough for two. The journey may surprise you.