Despite what movies would have you believe, not every college student is having the time of their life. In fact, many young people are faced with unexpected feelings of homesickness after they leave the parental nest. Todd Patkin tells parents what they should know about college homesickness, and how they can constructively react if this situation occurs.
Here, Patkin offers his tips for helping your child handle his or her college homesickness:
Determine whether your child is likely to feel harmful anxiety. Feeling a certain amount of homesickness is a possibility for every college student who leaves a familiar home to strike out (more or less) on his or her own. However, certain personality types may be more susceptible to these negative thoughts than others. According to licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Howard J. Rankin, about one in twenty-five children suffers from Separation Anxiety Disorder, which can push a young person’s feelings beyond “normal” homesickness. When ignored, these extreme emotions can be the catalyst that sparks anxiety, depression, and in rare cases, even suicidal thoughts.
Don’t downplay your child’s worries. When your child tells you that she isn’t feeling as comfortable at college as she’d like, your first reaction might be to downplay the situation—especially if she doesn’t have a history of homesickness. “Don’t worry,” you might instinctively want to say. “You’ll get used to your dorm and your classes, and I know you’ll make friends quickly.” Squelch that impulse, says Patkin. If your child calls home and says that she is worried or misses aspects of her “old” life, always talk to her about what could be causing her feelings.
But don’t rush to school to pick up your child, either. Again, some amount of homesickness is normal for just about every student. If your child seems to be experiencing a normal level of homesickness (i.e., not depressed or experiencing dangerous levels of anxiety), then it won’t help him if you rush to his rescue. You can help in small doses from home, of course—just don’t drop all of your weekend plans to make a last-minute collegiate road trip or immediately start researching local colleges for a transfer. Chances are good that given time, your child will develop coping mechanisms that will allow him to effectively work through his feelings on his own.
You can help take the edge off by making a few plans together. In an unfamiliar new environment, it can be difficult for your student to accurately picture what next semester, next month, or even next week might look like—and that uncertainty might be feeding her feelings of homesickness. In this instance, simply making plans to see you or to visit home in the near future might be just the remedy the doctor ordered, as long as the discussion is confident and encouraging.
Help them to re-create the security they feel at home at school. As Patkin has pointed out, part of the insecurity that new students feel when they are living on their own for the first time stems from the loss of the routine and comforts they were used to at home. For example, figuring out simple tasks like laundry and grocery shopping can be daunting when you’ve always had your parents’ help. (And really, who wouldn’t miss having Mom around to say, “Just give me your dirty clothes this week—I know you have a big test to study for”?) If you suspect that this issue is impacting your child’s happiness at college, send a pre-emptive email or care package full of advice and guidance.
Follow your child’s lead. While your child is getting settled into life as a college student, it’s best to use her feelings and impressions as a filter when sharing your own. For instance, if she isn’t as excited about dorm life as she thought she’d be, don’t be overly enthusiastic about your own new empty-nester freedom. And on the other hand, if she seems a bit wary of being out by herself, don’t add to the pile of her worries by confessing that you’re feeling lonely and sad without her, too.
Don’t confuse homesickness with depression (and vice versa). Symptoms of homesickness will lift eventually, typically within a few weeks. And normally, homesickness should be alleviated by a visit home. If your child’s feelings and symptoms persist for longer or if they seem more severe (and nothing you do seems to help alleviate them), then it may be time to seek some professional help for depression.
Realize that you and your child aren’t locked in. Yes, you have paid a deposit, moved your child into his dorm, and maybe even started to tackle those daunting tuition payments. While this does signify a big commitment, it’s important to realize that your child is not locked into remaining at his current college. And if his homesickness doesn’t abate despite your best efforts, he shouldn’t stay there long-term.
About the Author:
Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In, grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter.