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Advice for New College Students From a Recent GradCambria Pilger
There’s nothing magical about the 18th birthday. Just because our kids are legal adults doesn’t mean that we don’t still worry about them and want to help when they’re sad.
When they call or text to say they’re homesick, or we can just tell, our instincts kick in and we want to do something. But what? How can we be supportive without overreacting and making things worse?
While there is no single solution to dealing with homesickness, here are 10 things to keep in mind.
It’s sometimes difficult to tell from a phone call or text just how much a student is struggling. College can be overwhelming and leaving home can be frightening (this may be even more the case in 2020, the year of COVID-19, when nothing is as usual).
A little homesickness is to be expected. Psychologist and author Dr. Margaret Rutherford cautions parents against assuming the worst. “Remember that your child may simply be having a hard day and need to vent… Often, it’s because she or he is idealizing the past, and not recognizing opportunities in the present.”
When Meg was a student, she worked in her college’s admissions office. “The advice we always gave students,” Meg said, “was to stay on campus and get involved as much as possible. The more involved the students became, the more friends they made, and the less homesick they felt. It's not easy at first but it does get better.”
Remind your student of things they liked to do in high school, or encourage them to try something new. Clubs, intramural sports and faith groups are all good ways to meet people and start to feel at home. Because of social distancing requirements this fall, many activities will be virtual but others will be held outdoors or in small groups.
Sometimes our students just need to know that there’s a supportive listener on the other end of the phone. Asking questions shows that you are listening and that you care, and answering questions can help your student clarify their own thoughts and emotions.
It can be tempting to rush to the side of your homesick student. Some parents might even be tempted to offer an out — to tell their student that they can come home if they really want to.
Dr. Rutherford warns that this would be a mistake and encourages parents instead to help their student set some social goals, like making dinner plans with two new people by Halloween or talking to one new person each day.
In extreme cases of homesickness, families might consider setting up a schedule for students to come home — for example, once a month or twice before winter break. Knowing this is on the calendar can alleviate homesickness for some students.
Note: This may not be an option this fall at some schools, which are requesting that students stay on campus in order to reduce the amount of travel and the likelihood of a coronavirus outbreak.
While it can be helpful for some students to have scheduled trips home, it’s a good idea not to have too much contact between visits. Try setting “no contact goals.”
When Jenna first got to college, she was so homesick she called her mother twice a day. Finally, she decided to go a week without calling. Limiting contact actually helped her miss home a little less.
That said, there are no hard and fast rules about how much contact between parent and student is appropriate. Brigitte, a parent from Colorado, was getting a lot of homesick texts from her daughter who moved to New York City for college. Because of her daughter's history with depression, Brigitte didn't want to suggest less texting — "I prefer that she shares with me how she feels." As her daughter adjusts, she expects to hear from her less often; in the meantime she wants to stay tuned to any warning signs.
Of course you miss them, but telling your daughter that watching your favorite Neflix series isn’t the same without her, or your son that you really missed him at the last family game night, may only make them feel worse.
Dr. Rutherford observes, “Creating a home where a child doesn’t feel guilty for leaving is vital. Knowing their parents are fine and rooting them on in their new life is so important.”
We don't want our kids to feel like we're lost without them, but we also don't want them to think we're glad they're gone. Wait a few months (or years) before turning your son’s bedroom into a sewing room. Don’t box up your daughter’s high school basketball trophies or take down the hoop in the driveway — not just yet.
When Carly was a homesick college student, getting care packages from her parents made a difference. Does your family drink a particular brand of coffee? Mail a bag, along with a batch of home-baked cookies — enough to share with roommates. Or maybe they need more practical supplies in case they have to quarantine at some point!
Carly also loved getting letters from her family. In our digital world we forget how fun it is to get real mail. And early in the first semester especially, students may actually take some time to write back — this can be a good reflective exercise, a chance to work through and express some of their feelings.
We have to strike the balance between helping our students and enabling them. We need to be available without smothering. Just remember that homesickness is normal, and it’s usually fleeting. With a little guidance and support you and your college student will come through just fine.
My fellow writer and college parent, Lucy Ewing, adds this: "Homesickness can take the form of lovesickness when high school romances become long distance relationships. Texting/FaceTiming can be all-consuming. Students in LDRs should be encouraged to strike a balance, giving each other space to study and enjoy their respective campuses. It can help if they schedule regular times to talk."
College move-in is approaching! Help your student prepare by making sure they have everything they need for a successful freshman year.