Helping Your College Student Deal With Homesickness - U of I Extension

News Release

Helping Your College Student Deal With Homesickness

This article was originally published on September 20, 2007 and expired on March 1, 2008. It is provided here for archival purposes and may contain dated information.

Last time we met, we talked about helping our college students adjust to school using a T-shirt theme. I talked about how for awhile ours could read, "I Used to Have a Handle on Life, but It Broke!" A friend of mine sent me one better. It said, "Cheer up! The Worst is Yet to Come!"

I chuckled and thought, "How true" when it comes to working out all the details! Touring campus, getting applications sent in, filling out FASFA forms, accepting an offer, finding a dorm or apartment, and making the (endless) list of things to take with is the easy part. By the time move-in day comes, all the packing and carting things around make you feel like your student couldn't possibly have forgotten anything at home. But, sometimes what they can't take with them is what they miss the most ... the sounds and smells of home, a bathroom to themselves, a pet to cuddle and play with, the every day antics of younger brothers and sisters, old friends, and the security of knowing their way around.

As excited as they are to leave, about 70% of new students still experience homesickness during the first few days or weeks of school (or perhaps later in the year if it doesn't happen right away). As I said last time, most will eventually adjust and enjoy their new found freedom. Our lives as parents will settle into a new routine, too. But it doesn't always go so smoothly for some. 5% to 15% of students have more serious symptoms that may require intervention.

Research on homesickness published in the January 2007 issue of PEDIATRICS says that homesickness usually starts several weeks before leaving home when students anticipate upcoming changes. "The belief that homesickness will be strong, coupled with negative first impressions and low expectations for a new environment, is a powerful predictor of homesickness," says researchers Christopher A. Thurber, PhD, Edward Walton, MD and the Council on School Health. "In some ways, expectations of intense homesickness and negative experiences become self-fulfilling prophecies. In a study of college freshmen, perceived absence of social support was a strong predictor of homesickness."

In other words, students who expect adjusting to new living quarters, making new friends, and college academics will be difficult while focusing on missing family members and friends are essentially wearing an invisible t-shirt that reads, "No sense in being pessimistic. It wouldn't work anyway!"

They may also be irritable, short tempered, argumentative, and uncooperative - or the opposite - silly, playful, and showing no interest in attending classes.

When your son or daughter's behavior affects their day-to-day life to such a degree that he/she is having stomach pains, head aches, difficulty eating, sleeping, or getting through the day, and he or she is generally keeping to him or herself - or the opposite - "parties hardy" or sleeps as often as possible – then its time to be concerned and get them help.

"Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts," says author, Arnold Bennett. So, what can we do to help our student adjust?

  • Tell them, "Almost everyone misses something about home when they are away. Homesickness is normal. It just means you enjoy many things about living at home."
  • Involve them as much as possible in the decision to leave home, where they'll live, and when and how you'll regularly be in contact. Weekly emails or scheduled phone calls are especially helpful to freshman.
  • Avoid non-helpful comments such as, "I sure hope the food there is decent," "I hope you'll be okay," or "Have a wonderful time. I hope I remember to feed your dog," says Dr. Thurber and Dr. Walton. "Giving children something to worry about will increase the likelihood of their having preoccupying thoughts of home."
  • Help your student focus on what he/she is gaining. Express enthusiasm and optimism about college. Encourage them to get involved in activities/social groups that follow their own passions. Guide rather than pressure.
  • Develop their coping skills by allowing for mistakes - otherwise know as "life experiences." Accept your student's ability to make decisions, even when you suspect he/she may be wrong.
  • Encourage their talking with a friend, a room mate, the RA, or a campus counselor to find the support they need instead of rushing in as savior to meet their every challenge.
  • Plan ahead for holidays, visits home, etc. Help them keep some perspective on the duration of the separation. In some cases, it's too much and your student will need to return home. Help them to work their feelings out. Encourage them to return another semester when they are more ready for the college experience.

Also, help yourself by acknowledging your feelings rather than keep them inside. Share your personal worries with another trustworthy adult (out of your student's ear shot) to support your own emotions. By sharing what you're going through with others who have "been there", you'll find even more ways to adjust and "be there" for your student(s) when they need you.

Angela Reinhart, Unit Educator, Family Life, Champaign County Unit

Pull date: March 1, 2008