As parents sending our students off to college we’ve been told to expect that our student will be homesick. (We’ve written a post saying essentially the same thing — and it has some good advice). We’ve been told it’s inevitable. That it might happen right away or that it might take a while, but it will happen. According to UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, close to 65% of college students will experience homesickness. So it’s good to be prepared.
Is it really homesickness?
What is almost certain is that most students will experience some unhappiness, stress, and anxiety at some point. It is a natural reaction to being out of your element and in unfamiliar territory. It’s what happens before you become, as Harlan Cohen terms it in his book The Naked Roommate, ”comfortable with the uncomfortable.” But are our students really homesick?
It depends on how you define homesick. Are these students really missing home? Are they really missing us? They hardly talked to us all summer. They’ve worked hard for years to get to this place. Just a few short weeks ago — or maybe days — they couldn’t wait to leave. They couldn’t wait to be out on their own. Is it really home and parents that they are missing?
The answer for most students is, they are probably not homesick. What students are missing is the familiar. Students are missing the normalcy of their routine at home. They are missing the security that they feel at home. It’s not really the place, or the people, it’s the feeling.
Missing the familiar, the comfortable, is not necessarily being homesick. It’s important for parents to understand the difference. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, homesickness is ”distress and functional impairment.” It’s the functional impairment that makes the difference. It means that your’re so distressed that you can’t function the way you should on a daily basis.
Skyfactor, a student retention software company used by many colleges, makes an interesting case that homesickness involves both separation and negative feelings about that separation. In other words, your student regrets leaving home, thinks about home all of the time, feels college is pulling them away from their home community. It’s a subtle distinction, but if your student is distressed about the unfamiliar but still, at least somewhere below the surface, feels positive about being at college, it may not really be homesickness. Your student is feeling the distress of the unfamiliar, but isn’t truly homesick.
Does it really matter what you call it?
If your student is unhappy, distressed, anxious, does it really matter what label you put on what they are feeling? Actually, maybe it does. It may help to remind your student, and yourself, that home isn’t necessarily the antidote to what they are feeling. It’s not really home that they need, it is making their new situation feel comfortable and familiar. Changing the label may help change the perspective.
Your student is a college student now, but they don’t feel like it yet. They don’t feel as though they belong. Your student may be fearful about facing the unknown, but they can’t identify those feelings because they are just that — feelings. What your student is experiencing isn’t necessarily rational. They can’t just think it through (although it helps to think about it), they need to live the experience.
Colleges understand this transitional time and work hard during the first six weeks of the semester to help new students get to know their surroundings and get to know each other. Students need to give themselves a chance to become part of a new culture.
So what can you do to help your student?
Just because you understand that your student may not really be truly homesick, you’re not about to step away and let the college take over. If your student is in distress, you are in distress, and you want to help. With the clear understanding that this is your student’s problem to deal with and it is their adjustment and not yours, there are some things that you can do to help your student overcome this phase of the transition to college.
- Don’t dismiss your student’s feelings. Just because you understand that this is a phase that your student will survive, doesn’t make the feelings any less intense for your student. Understand that their feelings are real. Be sympathetic. But don’t get carried away agreeing with everything your student may say.
- Encourage your student to allow a little sadness sometimes and then to move on. It’s OK to be unhappy, to have a bad day, or afternoon, or hour, but then they need to find a positive focus. Your student will have other bad days and then will move on from them as well.
- Try to help your student understand that this is a normal reaction. Many students (65%) are feeling the same way — although they may not be sharing their feelings, so your student doesn’t realize that they are not alone.
- Remind your student that their feelings are probably not really about home. Remind them how anxious they were to leave. Remind them of the positive things they were looking forward to.
- Remind your student of other experiences when they have had to make adjustments. Perhaps a first time away at camp? First weeks in a new school? First practices on a new sports team. Your student has successfully made transitions in the past. They will do it again.
- Work with your student to help identify some coping strategies. What can they do to feel better? What can they do to make the unfamiliar more familiar? Help them find some small steps that will help.
- Encourage your student to get out of their room and to meet new people and to get involved. This is where the college can help. Most schools schedule many activities during the first few days and weeks to help students meet each other and get involved. The danger is that your unhappy student may stay in their room, perhaps texting you and their friends from home. Encourage your student to give the school a chance. Encourage them to talk to one new person each day, go to a meal with someone from down the hall, participate in one event or activity.
- Encourage your student to volunteer to help someone. Perhaps there is a local food pantry that could use help. Perhaps a local scout troop that needs extra leadership. A youth sport activity that needs coaches. Another student who could use some tutoring or study help. Focusing on someone else’s needs often helps.
- Encourage your student to think about their health. Emotions can be more difficult to deal with when you haven’t gotten enough sleep or exercise or you aren’t eating well.
- This one is difficult, but suggest that you and your student communicate a little less for a few days. It seems counterintuitive. If your student is unhappy at school, you want them to be able to connect with you. But right now they need to connect with school — and they need to try to do this on their own. Suggest that you talk every other day instead of every day. Or make plans to text once or twice, but then talk on the phone once a week. Ask them to give it a try — and be willing to keep to your agreement.
- Continue to speak positively about the college and the college experience. Don’t let your student’s negativity carry over. Mention the positives, the things that drew them to this school, the things they were looking forward to.
- Encourage your student to talk to someone at school about their feelings. Residence Assistants are trained to help students make this transition. College counseling services work with student stress daily. Professors and college staff are sympathetic. Your student should take full advantage of all of the support available at school.
- Send some cards and care packages from home. Include some special things that you know your student loves. How can your student not feel at least a little better when they receive a package?
- Remind your student to be patient. Adjusting to a new life takes time. There will be better days and days that aren’t good, but if they give the school a chance, things will get better.
Can these stressful feelings be prevented? For most students, they probably can’t. Transition is difficult. Transition takes time. Homesickness and stress are also feelings that can’t be turned off and on. The degree of stress that your student feels may change from day to day, or even hour to hour. It will come and go. But hopefully, it will lessen just a little with each passing day. If you and your student have patience, and your student is willing to do the work of adjusting, gradually the unfamiliar will become familiar, the uncomfortable will become comfortable, and your student will begin to truly feel like a college student.