Your cell phone rings and you are delighted to see your son’s name come across the screen. He’s been away at college about two months and hasn’t called to check in very often. You’ve tried to give him space to adjust to his new surroundings and routine, so you are thrilled that he’s calling.
“Hello, Nick!” you exclaim. “It’s so great to hear from you!” “Um, Mom?” he says, shakily. “What’s wrong?” “I’m not sure, exactly. I just don’t feel good.” “Are you sick?” “No, it’s not that. I feel ok. I just don’t think college is right for me. I want to come home. What have I done by coming here?”
You take a deep breath, gather all your mental and parental resources, and resist the temptation to offer an immediate way out.
“Let’s talk about this, Nick.”
This scenario is repeated year after year for parents of first-year college students. It’s not unexpected. After all, your student has probably had a whirlwind few months. The celebration of high school graduation, the summer shopping expeditions to outfit a new dorm room, the anticipation of leaving home, orientation weekend and the excitement over new classes have been left behind. And the grind of university life, with its deadlines and peer pressures, has begun.
To help your student cope with the massive changes they are experiencing and remain healthy, here are our top 10 tips to help your student overcome their inevitable feelings of homesickness.
1. Listen to your student.
Let them express what they are experiencing without giving advice. This may go against all your parental instincts, but a listening ear could be exactly what they need. Just let them tell you whatever is on their mind. Ask clarifying questions but do not project judgment or disappointment that they are experiencing homesickness.
2. Validate their feelings, even if you don’t completely understand or agree.
Sometimes students just need to express how they feel: lonely, tired, stressed, even bored. Acknowledge that whatever they are feeling is okay. Feelings and emotions are powerful, but they are not circumstances—they are just feelings.
3. Empower problem-solving.
Your young adult is probably living away from home for the first time, and they may be used to you offering solutions for their challenges. Instead of jumping right to ideas, coach them with leading questions that encourage them to think creatively and come up with their own solutions.
4. Help them develop coping strategies.
Encourage your student to find an outlet for their anxiety about being away from home. If they are athletic, encourage them to go for a run or to the gym. If they enjoy writing, encourage them to keep a journal. Mindfulness exercises like deep breathing can reduce feelings of stress. You can also encourage them to utilize on-campus counseling services.
5. Encourage them to talk to others about what they are experiencing.
Ask lots of questions about who their friends are, the kinds of groups they belong to, their resident assistant, or trusted professors. Encouragement and support can come from all kinds of places. Sometimes it just takes a nudge from a parent for a student to begin to open up to others in their social or academic circle. As mentioned before, on-campus counseling services can be a good resource with this as well.
6. Reinforce their decision.
Gently remind your student why they wanted to study away from home in the first place. A good tactic is to again ask leading questions: “What made you want to study away from home?” “What do you believe are the long-term benefits of this university?” “How do you believe this experience will prepare you for life after graduation?” Helping your student remember why they wanted to attend and pointing them to a long-term goal can give them some much-needed perspective.
7. Share your own experiences.
If you have memories from your own experience of living away from home for the first time, whether it was for college or your own apartment, share them! Your student needs to know that feeling homesick is a normal part of separating from parents and becoming an adult. Sharing your own story is also an opportunity to build a relationship with your student at a new, more adult level.
8. Send a surprise care package.
Everyone loves mail and everyone loves to know someone is thinking of them! Fill a box with your student’s favorite treats, needed supplies like toothpaste and socks, and send it “just because.” For extra fun, wrap each item and put an encouraging note or quote inside. Your student will know they are loved and that you are thinking of them. If you need help building a tasty care package, NNU’s Student Alumni Council offers Student Treats to order!
9. Set regular times to communicate with home.
Many parents do not take the lead on communicating with a new first-year student. They want the student to find their own way. That is generally a good strategy, but if your student is struggling with homesickness, take the lead. Establish regular check-in times that work with everyone’s schedule and are not intrusive. Once or twice per week is a good place to start. Utilize video calls when you can. It will be good for your student to see you (and maybe any siblings or pets at home)!
10. Stay patient and supportive.
Remember each student is an individual and each student’s experience with homesickness will be unique. Your student may simply need a pep talk once or twice, or they may need support for a number of weeks. If you find yourself getting frustrated, take a step back and remind yourself how much you love your student and how much you want them to succeed.
Parents, although your first-year student is out from under your roof, they are not out from under your influence. The relationship may be changing (as it should!), but you are a key person in your student’s life. They trust you, they love you, and they want to make you proud. You’ve got this—and so do they!