Several times a week, parents tell me, it's odd....my kids are so different from each other! I don't think it's odd at all. Despite growing up in a "shared family environment," multiple factors from non-shared genetics to non-shared environmental influences shape each of us.
This summer, we are observing this in our own home. Both our kids are at overnight camp - one is gleefully happy and wants to stay longer than planned and one is having a tougher time and at some rough times, would clearly prefer to be at home! Both kids are dealing with a shared stressor - a very ill relative who they love and the uncertainty that comes with that. The kids are at brother/sister camps with the same values, activities, food, etc. Yet, we laugh all winter about how one thinks the chicken patties are the best things ever and one thinks they are similar to "roadkill." Same.chicken.patties!!!!!
It is hard to be away from your kids when they are struggling. Typically, during our nightly family dinners, we discuss the day and guide our kids on how to deal with the challenges of peers, a sport they want to play but aren't very good at, or a family issue like an ill relative. When the kids are away, and all correspondence is via letters only, it is harder to guide. Some days, it feels unfair to send the kids off in this way. But, on the rough days, here is what I remind myself:
-Even when we are not there, the kids hear our voices and our guidance. This was confirmed to us during our one phone call of the summer with our more reticent child who said, "During the tough times, I think, well, what would mommy and daddy suggest in this situation?" We always want to teach our kids to do this self talk. Now, of course, we don't only want our kids to hear OUR voices in their heads. We want them to develop their own voice in their head - their own internal psychologist to provide advice to get through challenges. If we always jump in, they will never learn to handle all of life's ups and downs on their own. Sometimes a few weeks away is a good opportunity for kids to learn they can cope on their own -- and flip-side -- for parents to see that they don't always need to jump in to solve every problem.
-On a related note, people in our society tend to keep struggles within their own families. You know, never let them see you sweat! Sending kids off on their own for a stretch of time also encourages them to seek support from others. This is an amazing skill to have. So many of my patients can't order their own food in a restaurant or ask for help in a store, let alone share their innermost feelings with a friend or ask for support from a grown up. When we are not there to support our kids, it is more likely they will seek this support from trusted others and learn how to establish meaningful connections outside their nuclear family.
-On tough days, I remind myself that our goal, as parents, is to raise our children into adults. My favorite read this year was "How to Raise An Adult" by Julie Lythcott-Haims. You must read this book!!!! This book reminds us that we don't want to wait until college for our kids to learn to manage without us. A bit of struggle along the way is a good thing! Facing a challenge, sticking with it, and coming up with a solution develops resilience. And, of course, where camp is concerned, learning to clean a bunk, set a table, and prepare one's own food isn't such a bad thing either!
Are your kids at overnight camp? How are you dealing with struggles that they might be having from afar?
I am a licensed psychologist working with kids, teens, and adults with anxiety disorders.