Of course, not all college students will get homesick when they go away to college. Many students adjust well, settle in, and have a wonderful experience. Some students may experience some homesickness, but their parents will never know about it. It may last a few days or a few weeks, the student will adjust and move on. But for some parents, the fear becomes reality. Their college student is homesick, miserable, and perhaps asking to come home. What is a parent to do?
Students may experience homesickness to varying degrees, although most probably have at least some of those feelings of longing for home. It is helpful for parents, and students, to understand that a certain amount of homesickness is completely normal. Students are dealing with unfamiliar situations, possible lack of routine and structure, loss of close friends, and readjustments of expectations. Some factors may increase the likelihood that your child may experience some degree of homesickness: no previous experiences away from home, difficulty making transitions to new situations, roommate issues, leaving a boyfriend or girlfriend at home, possible concerns about family members at home, or academic difficulties. One Dutch study, conducted in 2007, suggested that students with more involved parents tend to experience more homesickness; however, they may also have more effective coping strategies.
While recognizing that your college student may not be experiencing homesickness, parents may want to watch for signs. Your college student may tell you outright that she is homesick (girls are more apt to articulate these feelings than boys). Your student may call home more often or ask to visit home more than you expected. Your student may express dissatisfaction with everything and everyone at the school. Students may be especially worried about classes, especially anxious, have difficulty making decisions, or withdraw from social activities. Parents need to watch closely for any signs of serious adjustment difficulties or depression: excessive use of alcohol or food, excessive TV, internet or video game use. (Remember that all of these activities are normal, it is excessive use that may be concerning.)
Although homesickness may occur immediately, during the first few days or weeks of college; it may also occur around mid-semester. Don’t assume that your student won’t ever be homesick just because he does not experience it at the beginning of the semester. For some students, it may take until several weeks into the term before the novelty of the college experience begins to wear off, and the reality of studying and trying to find balance, begins to sink in. Midterm exams may exacerbate underlying feelings. In some areas of the country, the coming cold and gray of November weather may be a factor.
So if your college student does experience some degree of homesickness, at some point in the semester, is there anything that you, as a parent can do? Absolutely. Although you may feel helpless at times, here are a few suggestions to help you help your college student through this time.
- Be willing to listen to your student’s feelings and validate that they are real. Sometimes just being able to express her feelings may be what your student needs. She may not need your suggestions, just your understanding ear. Don’t trivialize or dismiss her feelings.
- Recognize that colleges work at, and are often quite good at, identifying and dealing with students who are experiencing homesickness. Orientation Leaders, Resident Assistants, counselors, and other college personnel are trained to help students adjust to college. Suggest to your student that he talk with someone on campus about his feelings.
- Remind yourself that increased independence is one of the goals for your college student. Going through this difficult phase may be part of the necessary process of emerging adulthood. Give her support, but know that she needs to deal with this situation.
- Although you want to let your child know that you miss him, don’t dwell on how empty the house seems without him. Let him know that you are also adjusting to changes.
- Encourage your student to stay on campus rather than making frequent visits home. It is difficult to adjust to college if you are not there — especially on the weekends, when more of the social activity may occur.
- Continue to make positive comments about the college and the college experience. Don’t buy into negativity expressed by your student.
- Let your student know that you believe that she can handle this situation. You believe in her abilities.
- Suggest that your student take some time to make herself more familiar with the campus. Study a campus map, take some walks around campus, find some new and interesting places. The more familiar she becomes with her new home the more quickly she will feel comfortable.
- Suggest that your student pick some small goals — for the next day or week — to do something to take action and not be a victim of her feelings. Doing some small thing — attending a club meeting, having dinner with a new friend from class, talking to a professor, attending an athletic event — will help her to feel in control.
- Suggest that your student get involved on campus: attend a club meeting, join an intramural sport, volunteer to help somewhere. Students who are more involved are happier — and better — students.
- Help him think about whether some extra academic support may help with classes and schoolwork. Perhaps he is feeling overwhelmed and could use some help studying. Perhaps a study group would help — not only academically, but also socially.
As parents, we want our children to be healthy and happy — or at least well adjusted. When we sense that they are homesick or unhappy, our first tendency may be to rush to their aid and help them. As they work to adjust to college — and to a new form of adulthood — we may need to rethink how we support them. They still need us to be parents, to be there for them, but the form of that parenting may change. Homesickness usually gets better with time. Help your college student know that you are there, that you believe that she can and will adjust, and that she can take action to make things better.