Home is where the heart is. When kids leave home – for a night, a weekend, a month, a school year, or for good – there are often mixed emotions. Excitement, fear and sadness are common feelings but may be confusing or even overwhelming for the youngster who is experiencing them. How can parents help their children negotiate departures most comfortably? How can they help them through the pain of homesickness when it occurs?
The pain of leaving home has different sources for different children. Let’s look at three common origins of this type of sadness:
1. Leaving home for camp, school, vacation and travel means dealing with change. One is thrust out of one’s familiar, cozy, home environment and thrown into a new, different place. Kids who have trouble handling change will naturally have some level of difficulty in adjusting to living away from home because of that factor alone.
2. Leaving home also means leaving a place of security and familiarity. Children who tend to be fearful in general will often feel separation anxiety – the fear of being alone, separated from everything they know and love.
3. Leaving home for the first time is like any other “first time” experience; initially challenging and somewhat anxiety-provoking for almost everyone.
These three issues – difficulty handling change, general anxiety and the challenge of new experiences – require three different types of parental interventions.
Difficulty with Change
Some kids want to come home because they are having trouble being out of their familiar environment. If your child is like this, you can help prevent homesickness in the first place by helping your child become as familiar with the new environment as possible before he or she actually goes there. For instance, taking young children to see their new classroom before the first day of school helps the place to become somewhat familiar even though it is a new place. Taking children to see the hospital in preparation for a stay there is a similar concept. Sometimes, however, the child cannot go to the new location. In such a case, picture books or internet video clips might be employed to illustrate the general idea. There are, for instance, video clips of children preparing for surgery and recovery in a hospital – these clips show everything from the admitting desk to the surgical room and more.
Offering your child the Bach Flower Remedy Walnut can help foster an easier adjustment to change. Walnut is specifically indicated for those kids and teens who have a hard time with changing circumstances. Two drops in a little liquid, taken four times a day in the weeks before the change can help make the transition must easier and more comfortable. You can find more information on the Bach Flower Remedies online and throughout this site.
If you have not been able to prepare your youngster for leaving home, you can help him adjust to change by sending along some familiar items (i.e. a favorite pillow, some family photos and so on). Once in his new location, it may be helpful for the child to be able to communicate with you frequently at first, simply to help ease the transition. As the child becomes more comfortable in his or her new surroundings, less communication will be necessary.
Allow your child to express his or her unhappy feelings. “I don’t like it here,” “I don’t like the food here,” “I don’t know anyone here,” I want to come home,” are all legitimate feelings. Acknowledge and accept them. “I know Honey. Yes it’s hard. Yes, it’s different. I understand.” Refrain from telling the child that he will soon get used to everything. Let that happen by itself. Also refrain from rescuing the child by bringing him home. He needs to master the experience of change. “You’ll soon be home again,” is enough – respond calmly to the child’s anxious and stressed state. Don’t offer too much reassurance, but instead convey through your calm responses that you believe in the child’s ability to handle the difficult feelings. “I know it’s not easy.” Say it sympathetically and just leave it at that. If the child is quite young, try to arrange for extra adult support. “Aunty Sara will let you sleep in her room for the first few nights.” Little kids need more help in adjusting to new environments. When they are given that help, their adjustment tends to be smoother. This is also why some nursery school classes allow parents to stay with a child for the first few days – or even weeks – of school. Gradual transitions to separation are easier on small children than sudden separations. Similarly, younger children do better with shorter stays away from home. It’s normally very hard on a four year old to be away from parents for more than a couple of days. Eight year-olds may be fine with two weeks away at camp. Fourteen year-olds can usually handle two months away with no problem. However, don’t be surprised to find your eighteen or nineteen year old child experiencing homesickness in College or other places away from home. They, too, can be bothered by the change or the separation issues.
Children with separation issues need to build up their ability to leave home. If possible, help them to make short excursions before more lengthy ones: arrange for them to sleep over ONE night at Grandma’s house. Staying with familiar people helps in the early stages. Build up to two nights away, a few days, a week or two and a month – try to do all this before sending this kind of youngster off to college in another city. If you haven’t done this or if it hasn’t helped, and your child is painfully homesick missing YOU and the family, then it’s fine to help the youngster by providing as much communication as possible until he gets used to being away. For instance, there is no reason to avoid daily telephone calls or frequent texting (unless the child is at a camp that forbids this). Eventually the child will settle into his new environment and not need or want that much contact from you. Use some of the comfort strategies suggested above for kids who find change difficult – bringing familiar things from home can help at least a little.
The Bach Flower Remedy Mimulus can help reduce the pain of being away from loved ones. Give as described above for Walnut.
Again, it is important to help your youngster succeed at staying away. Bringing him home early should be avoided unless the homesickness is so overwhelming that the child is not functioning well in his new environment. Even an older teenager can be brought home if homesickness is interfering with his functioning – sometimes, he just needs one more year or two at home. People do develop at different rates. During that time, it would be wise to arrange brief separations as described above, in order to help prepare the child for a lengthier separation in the near future. Keep in mind that one 13 year-old is ready to leave happily to a boarding school while another is beyond miserable at the thought of being away. Your child is an individual who needs individual attention – there is no one right way to respond to serious homesickness. Do what feels right for you and your child. However, if a child is young (under 9) and homesick, go ahead and bring him home if it is possible to do so – he’ll do better with separation when he’s older.
The Stress of First Time Experiences
In order to reduce feelings of homesickness that are occurring due to the fact that the experience of being away is new, help prepare the child for the experience as much as possible. Use the strategies suggested above for kids who have difficulty with change.
Sometimes there is no time to prepare a child. A youngster might suddenly require hospitalization, for instance or he may have to suddenly stay at a relative’s house due to a family emergency. Explain what is happening in as much detail as possible. “Mommy and Daddy have to fly to New York for Grandad’s funeral. You will be staying with the Gold’s until we get back. We’ll be gone for four days. We’ll call you every morning to say good morning and every night to say goodnight before you go to sleep. You will have breakfast, lunch and dinner with the Gold’s. You will also have a bath there one night. I am sending your clothes and your school books. You’ll go to school as usual and they will pick you up afterward…” Giving the child all of this information can help him cope with the novel situation with less stress.
However, the child may still miss his home and his parents. Again, allow him to be sad – his feelings of homesickness are perfectly normal. Let him know you understand. DON’T try to talk him out of his feelings – the fastest way for him to feel better is for him to be able to say what he feels. Young kids can be encouraged to draw pictures for their parents or pictures of their feelings. Sometimes art is a better medium for the expression of their feelings than words.
For children who are feeling homesick, the Bach Flower Remedy Honeysuckle might help. When there is nothing else that can be done, go ahead and offer two drops of Honeysuckle in liquid four times a day until the child is feeling better – or until he is returning home!