February 4, 2013

Preventing Homesickness

by Jacob Rodenburg

Summer time!  What child doesn’t look forward to the sultry days of July and August, free from school and full of possibility?  Summer might mean a visit to the cottage, staying over at a friend’s or being at summer camp.  For children, summer is a wonderful time to foster a sense of independence, to embark on new adventures and to develop new skills.

At the same time, being away from home can mean an unwelcome dose of homesickness!  Nausea, headache, mood swings, crying and irritability, lethargy, lack of motivation…these are just some of the symptoms associated with homesickness.  Likely all of us have felt this way at one time or another when we were growing up.  And, as parents, we want to do what we can to protect our children from feeling this way.

There is an upside to homesickness.  Researchers believe that it is caused by a temporary absence from a happy, stable home.  So if our children exhibit signs of homesickness, it means they feel loved, accepted and nurtured.  Parents should understand that homesickness is a natural and expected phase of childhood development.

On the other hand, we want our children to experience new challenges in a positive and healthy way.  We know it is our role as parents to foster independence and autonomy.

The good news is that in many instances, homesickness can either be prevented or minimized.  And we can start acting now to help our children cope with summer camp, an overnight visit to a friend’s or a trip away from home.

Here are a few simple preventative measures:
  • Talk to your child about what it is going to be like being away from home.  See if you can walk them through a typical day, focusing on the fun and interesting things your child will participate in.  Be enthusiastic and optimistic.  For summer camp, talk to camp staff about obtaining a detailed schedule.  Knowing what to expect helps a child feel a sense of security.
  • Avoid negative comments such as “I hope you’ll be OK” or “I’ll worry about you.”  Children are astute and can easily pick up on your feelings of anxiety.
  • Encourage your child to take something memorable from home: a special toy, a blanket, a stuffed animal.  This item, you can explain, is a link to home.
  • It is important to avoid saying that your child can come home.  Children have a marvelous capacity to cope, if given the support and the chance to adapt to a new environment.  Don’t forget, the ability to face new challenges is an important life skill all parents need to teach their children.
  • Try a few practice sessions.  For example camping in the backyard with a sibling or staying overnight with a friend.
  • If possible visit the facility before hand.  A quick tour of a summer camp for example can make all the difference in helping a child feel more comfortable.
  • Give your child pre-stamped, addressed envelopes and writing paper before they leave.  Encourage them to write home and don’t forget to take the time to write back.  Make sure your letters are not overly saturated with how much fun you are having without your child.  Avoid statements like:  “we miss you very much;” “it is not the same without you.”  These comments can inadvertently trigger homesickness.
  • Remember, lengthy good byes can be difficult for children and their parents.  Try to keep your departure upbeat, brief and cheerful.
Preventing homesickness is one thing.  But what do we do if we have a child visiting us who clearly misses home?  Here are several strategies to dealing with a homesick child:
  • One of the most effective ways to deal with homesickness is to engage a child in a task, preferably something fun and absorbing.  Perhaps a trip to the zoo, making a craft or going for a hike.
  • Writing a short note home can make all the difference.  Allow your visitor to express his or her feelings but encourage them to focus on the positive things that are happening.  Try not to call home…hearing the voice of a parent, tends to make homesickness worse.
  • Encourage your visitor to make a friend.  Often that one bond helps a child feel a sense of security and belonging.
  • Never belittle or chastise a child for feeling homesick.  Instead, emphasize that homesickness is a normal part of growing up.  Support, acknowledge celebrate every positive step.
Keep in mind that while the goodbyes may be difficult and the homesickness real, the rich experiences kids encounter away from home help them become the strong, independent and fully functioning citizens that we as parents, can be proud of.