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Helping with Homesickness

Laura Hanby Hudgens


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.

1. Don’t panic.

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.”

2. Encourage your student to get involved on campus.

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.

Find more ideas about how to encourage your student to get involved in campus activities >

3. Listen and ask questions.

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.

4. Don’t ride to the rescue.

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.

5. Remind your student that home is still there for them — later.

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.

6. Don’t be too available.

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.

7. Don’t be a part of the problem.

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.”

8. Postpone changes.

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.

9. Send a little love the old-fashioned way.

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.

10. Homesickness is hard, especially on parents.

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."

You may also want to read Settling in Takes Time by Marlene Kern Fischer >

Laura Hanby Hudgens is a freelance writer and part-time high school teacher who lives with her family on a buffalo farm in the Ozark hills. Her work has appeared on The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Parent.co, Grown and Flown and more. When she isn’t working, Laura loves reading classic literature, baking pseudo-healthy desserts, knitting poorly, and hanging out with her husband and four kids.
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Tracy Zorn
Tracy Zorn
1 month ago

Well at least reading this I realize that most of what I have been doing as my daughter is crying on the phone may be the right things. But it is the hardest thing I have ever done - it was the same feeling as putting her out the car crying in Pre-K. She is having such a rough time and Covid is making it worse! She joined a sorority (her last pick but I told her to try it anyway - might have been a mistake) and she has an on campus job, but that is where her college life ends. The sorority is not allowed to meet or have functions - all of rush was done online so not really an idea way to meet people. The students are written up if they gather in a group anywhere on the campus. Just about all of her classes were moved online so now she lives two hours away basically just to go to work and one in person day in a math class. So no real possibilities to make friends or interact with people. I don't know how to make her feel better about this because encouraging her to make friends is not even possible.

Ianni Le
Admin
1 month ago
Reply to  Tracy Zorn

Hi! We are currently working on some articles to address this difficult time in our students' college experiences and hope to provide some concrete help very soon. Please check in with CollegiateParent periodically to make sure you don't miss it! You can also sign up for our newsletter here: http://bit.ly/loop-enews to make sure you don't miss new articles, or join our College Parent Insiders Facebook Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/collegeparentinsiders) to connect with other parents!

Diane Schwemm
Admin
1 month ago
Reply to  Tracy Zorn

Tracy, just following up. I hope you shared your story in our Facebook group because other parents may be able to provide comfort and even some ideas. We understand how painful this is at CollegiateParent — a number of us have college students ourselves (including one freshman). We recently posted a new blog about homesickness by a student who works in residence life and she has some different tips that might help you support your daughter: https://www.collegiateparent.com/student-life/helping-with-homesickness-during-the-pandemic/.

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