Missing The Familiar: How to Parent Your Homesick College Student

This month many students headed off to college and, for many of them it is their first time away from home. Along with all of the accouterments they will bring with them to make their dorm room feel homey, they will also be bringing along their anxiety. And that may turn into the one thing they never thought they’d be: homesick.

During the college search and application process like me, you’ve likely discussed the location of the schools and the positives and negatives of living further afield. Of course your confident teen assured you that they couldn’t wait to be independent and distance was no problem.

What’s Normal

It’s 11:00 p.m. on day two of living at school and my phone rings. I hear sniffling and sobbing on the other end. When asked what’s wrong, my teen says she is, “100% certain that she is the only one feeling overwhelmed, anxious and uneasy.” The truth is every single student is feeling some uneasiness in this transition. And that’s normal.

While every muscle in my body wanted to grab the car keys and drive the four hours to where she now resides along with some ice cream, a soft blanket and stuffed animal, I told myself that my role as a parent is not to coddle her, but to comfort her. Not to make the feeling go away, but to normalize it. I had to help her understand that it is temporary.

I explained how the best way to take charge of the fear was not to expect to feel wonderful at first, but to expect the exact opposite (she didn’t find that comforting). The example I gave her is, “If you expect a bump in the road and slow down before hitting it, you don’t go flying.” Likewise, if you normalize the discomfort and expect it, it won’t send you reeling into an anxious state.

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This got me thinking about how other parents might help their college student deal with their homesick feelings.

Being Homesick is Real

Remind them that strong emotions come in waves, and like the ocean tide, they come and go. The unhappiness is only temporary and they will feel better in a little while. Encourage them to do something – anything, other than sitting alone in their dorm room.

Time-bind the adjustment period. Your teen is likely thinking, “This will never get better.” So, ask her to think about how long she thinks it will take to settle into the new routine,  environment, and to make a friend or two. One week? Two? A month? Even if her estimate is wildly off, just seeing that there is an end to the adjustment suggests it’s possible.

Encourage her to take one small step every day to try something new or meet someone new. It can be as simple as saying “hi” to the person seated next to her in a lecture or sitting in a social place (cafeteria, end hall lounge, outside on a bench) and smiling at one or two people. Be open to new and different experiences and people.

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Encourage her to create a comfort zone and set time aside for “down time.” While this is a time of growth and exploration, she still needs to get enough sleep, eat well, stay hydrated, and get exercise. Remind her to do the things that make her feel emotionally centered, whatever that may be; journaling, playing video games, going for a walk or practicing yoga.
Finally, while your teen might be calling home frequently (is seven times in one day too much?), it will help her to stretch the time between calls. Plan set times to talk, and then text in between. It’s important that she build confidence and prove to herself that she can cope for longer and longer spans.

Transition and New Routines

As your teen struggles to adapt and create a separate life away from home you’ll begin to notice that the time between communications increases. There will be that moment when you are waiting to get a text from her instead of the reverse. Remember, homesickness isn’t about missing home. It’s about missing familiar rhythms, things, faces, and places. In no time at all the routine, friends and acquaintances, and places on campus will feel like home.