Parenting Solutions: Homesick (page 4)
Is afraid to leave home, misses the comforts of home and always wants to come back
The Change to Parent For
Your child learns skills and techniques that will help him feel more secure when he's away from home, reduce his chances of being homesick, and enable him to enjoy the experience of being away from house and family.
Question: "My child just went away to camp for the first time, and now he's calling me and asking to come home. Is this normal, and is there some way of knowing how bad he really feels?"
Answer: Up to 95 percent of kids who go to sleep-away camp miss something about home, but the good news is that the majority of those pangs begin to ease over the next two or three days.21 The best way to gauge how well your child is doing is to ask a simple question: "How homesick have you been feeling?"22 Most parents assume that asking will worsen the symptoms, when on the contrary researchers find it actually puts you in a better position to hear where your child is coming from and to check in on his emotional state. Then you can decide if he can make it a bit longer or does need to be rescued.
Sleepovers. Slumber parties. Weekend or summer camp. Boarding school. Hospitalization. Moving. There are a number of reasons kids go away from home. Going away may seem like a great experience, but for many kids the idea of spending time away from you, where you live, and everything that's familiar is scary—especially for the first few times. And then there are doubts in our own minds as well: Should I let him go? Is he old enough? Will he make it through the night? Why doesn't he want to go—should I insist? If your kid is older, there's a whole different set of worries: Will he be supervised? Will he get any sleep? Will there be any drugs or alcohol? Are he and his buddy really going to stay in the house all night? Ah, the joys of parenting! But then there's another worry that can be even more upsetting—homesickness!
Research Finds That Homesickness Is Preventable
New research conducted by clinical psychologists from one of the nation's leading boarding schools, Phillips Exeter Academy, and a University of Michigan physician found concluding evidence that homesickness can be greatly minimized and even prevented.23 The key is to talk to your child ahead of any separation to let him know homesickness is normal. Although almost 90 percent of children attending summer camp feel some level of homesickness, if parents coach and educate their children about ways to cope, the intensity of first-camp homesickness can be reduced by almost 50 percent. (See Step 3, p. 270.)
Although the longing for the comforts of home is normal for any age, those pangs can range from mild to almost debilitating. But now groundbreaking research finds that parents really can make a difference in minimizing—even preventing—homesickness and help their kids enjoy those away-from-home experiences far more. This entry shows you how to parent for change based on proven research that will help your preschooler, school ager, tween, or even teen prepare to venture off on his own.
Pay Attention to This!
When to Know Your Child Is Too Homesick
Research finds that about 90 percent of children attending summer camp feel some level of homesickness. Of those cases, 20 percent are severe, and about 7 percent—if untreated—will worsen over time and could lead to depression.24 If you are concerned that your child sounds overly distressed or angry and belligerent, or if he is not eating or sleeping due to anxiety or depression, it is time to go home. Do talk to the counselor and get his perspective, but in the end rely on your own instinct. Nobody knows your child better than you do.
Signs and Symptoms
Almost everyone—young and old—experiences homesickness to some degree, and there seems to be no difference among boys and girls. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Here are some of the most common signs of homesickness:
- Calls, writes, or e-mails far more than usual; looks for reasons to connect
- Stops participating in activities, withdraws
- Experiences physical ailments, such as headaches, nausea, lack of appetite, sleeplessness, anxiety
- Exhibits depression-like symptoms, such as excessive crying, marked sadness, lethargy, fatigue
- Acts out with anger or belligerence
- Can't enjoy the experience or time with his friends because he longs to be back home
Although it's hard to predict just how a child will respond to being away from home, these factors put a child at greater risk for homesickness:
- Is younger, more immature, or anxious
- Has little experience being away from home
- Has low expectations for the experience; doesn't want to go to the sleepover or camp
- Feels forced to go to the sleepover, boarding school, or camp
- Is unsure whether adults will help him if he needs help
- Has had limited practice handling negative emotions or lacks coping skills
- Has parents who express a lot of anxiety or concern about his going away
Step 1. Early Intervention
- Be sure your kid is ready. There is no magic age when your child is emotionally ready to be away from home—even if he begs to spend a few hours or the night away, he may not be ready. Here are some basic questions to ask so as to gauge whether he is ready to venture forth without you:
- Create solutions for any concerns. Research shows that if children have some control in preparing for the event, they feel more comfortable about going away.25 So identify any questions or concerns your child may have and then encourage him to brainstorm a solution (with your help). Here are a few common problems and simple kid-generated solutions:
- Show him where he's going. For a sleepover, ideally the child should first have gone to the house on a playdate so he can "get the lay of the land" and feels comfortable with the parents. To prepare for a camp experience, give your child an online tour of the camp, show him the brochures, and talk up the cool features and things he'll get to do.
- Keep any concerns to yourself. Beware of sending any negative vibes to your child. If he hears you expressing some concern about whether this will work out, he will lose confidence. And don't ever bribe your child to stay. It only sends the wrong message.
- Choose the camp or activity based on your child's strengths and temperament. Forget what the neighbor's kid is going. Don't base your decisions on that glossy brochure that came through the mail. The best way to choose a camp is to match it to your child. Solicit his input. What are his interests? Can he spend that much time away from home? Does he need structure? What do you want him to gain from his camp experience? When in doubt, ask your child's teacher for her opinion. A teacher is well equipped to assess the fit between your child and the camp's program. Remember, the bottom line is that you want your child's camp experience to be fun and positive.
- Meet the parents or camp leader. No matter how old your child is, do meet the parents or camp counselor face-to-face. You want to be sure that parents will be supervising the whole night; be clear that if there are any problems you want to be called, and make sure they have your phone number handy.
- Don't forgo medications. If your child is on any medication—whether it be for asthma, hay fever, bedwetting, or ADHD—don't omit the dosage. Time away is not the time to alter his medication. Talk to the camp nurse or the parent; if your child doesn't want the other kids to know, then find a way to make a quick stop at the house to deliver the dosage.
- Do a practice run. Try a rehearsal away from home, such as an overnight a few times at a good friend's or a relative's. If you are sending your child to camp for an extended time, then the practice run should be at least two or three days with no telephone calls but only the opportunity to write a letter or e-mail home (just don't be instant messaging your kid back).
Is your child sleeping in his own bed through the night, or is he climbing in with you at two o'clock in the morning?
Does he have any problems separating from you when he goes to day care, the babysitter's, or school?
Does your child get along with this kid well enough to spend a whole night together?
Does he feel comfortable with the child's parents?
Does he get along well enough with the other kids or feel secure enough with the parent to make it through what would be considered a twelve-hour play-date?
Is this something he wants to do (or only what you hope he will do)? Just ask yourself that key question one more time and search for the honest answer.
Problem: Afraid of the dark. Solution: Pack a flashlight in his backpack.
Problem: Won't like the food. Solution: Pack food you know he likes.
Problem: Afraid of wetting the bed. Solution: Bring a sleeping bag with a rubber sheet tucked inside just in case he has an accident.
Problem: Worried he can't reach you. Solution: Lend him a cell phone with your number plugged in on speed dial (or a calling card for camp for reassurance that he can call you anytime if really needed).
A few packed items can make even the most anxious kid more comfortable. Think of what might make your child feel safer.
Step 2. Rapid Response
- Have a positive send-off. Be cheerful and optimistic as you pack and get ready to go. Go to the door, meet the parents, and wait until your child looks settled. Give him a big hug and kiss. Then leave. Don't linger.
- Set a definite pickup time. "I'll be at the door at ten o'clock sharp to pick you up tomorrow morning." "I'll be back in two weeks and waiting for you right here at eleven o'clock."
- Show him the activities. Other than finding one buddy to "hang with," the next thing researchers say will alleviate homesickness is involvement in an activity (tennis, crafts, kayaking, swimming, beading—anything). If you can get your child excited about one activity, he will be more likely to feel a little more comfortable. And he'll have something to look forward to doing. If there is an upcoming swimming party—and your child can't swim—then this is the ideal time to tune up that skill a few weeks before the event.
- Don't make a deal. Beware: promising your child that if he "hates it" you'll be right there to pick him up actually decreases the likelihood that he will succeed in that time-away situation.26 Doing so gives your child the impression that you don't have confidence in his ability to make it through the day (or week or month) and sets an initial mind-set that you'll bail him out.
- Affirm the possibility of homesickness. If your child says, "What if I want to come home?" or "Suppose I get homesick?" just simply acknowledge that that may be the case, and let him know that it's normal to feel homesick. A matter-of-fact statement is best: "You probably will feel a little homesick, but those times you practiced have helped you know what to do in case any homesickness bothers you. Besides, the camp leaders (or parent or scout leader) will be there to talk to you and help you make it through."
- Beware of calling too often. Studies show that always calling and even instant messaging your kid can increase homesickness during short camp stays away from home.27 Old-fashioned letters and packages seem to be better ways to communicate.
- Hold off making a quick decision. If your child does call begging to come home, keep calm and listen. Avoid the temptation to take your kid home early. For a younger child, tell him you'll call back in an hour (give a specific length of time) to check in, then do keep your word. Talk to him privately to determine what he wants to do. You never know—he may have changed his mind. Then call the parent or the camp director (without your kid knowing) to get that person's take on things. If it sounds as though your child can pull through, don't feel guilty about making him stay. If your child is at camp, usually most incidents of homesickness will pass in a day or two.
- Pick him up with a cheerful attitude. So what if your kid doesn't make it all through the night or the whole camp period? If you want this to work in the long run, emphasize the positive accomplishment. "You stayed there two hours past your bedtime. That was much longer than last time." "It's not a big deal. You'll have lots of opportunities to spend the night at friends' houses again." Whatever you do, don't make a big deal out of the "spoiled evening" or "money down the drain." And don't plead for him to stay. Instead, just reassure him (and yourself) that there will be other times.
Step 3. Develop Habits for Change
Here are a few research-proven skills parents can teach their children before they leave that will better prepare them to cope with their time away, as well as reduce homesickness:28
- Learn to occupy time alone. Help him find ways to entertain himself (for example, reading, drawing, doing a jigsaw or crossword puzzle, playing Solitaire) so that he can fill up "alone time." Then suggest he tuck that activity away in a backpack just in case homesick feelings crop up.
- Think positively. Encourage him to "always look at the bright side of life" (such as his friends, activities, or upcoming events) to help him feel better.
- Mark off time. Teach your child to use a wall calendar to mark off the days or to tell time so he can see that the hours until he sees you are clicking away. Doing so helps kids keep the perspective that the separation isn't an eternity.
- Teach conversation openers. Help your child rehearse a few icebreakers, such as "I have some CDs you might like" or "Do you want to go swimming later?" Research finds that if kids feel alienated, they are more liked to get homesick.
- Practice correspondence skills. Teach your child how to dial your phone number or make a collect call through the operator or on a calling card, use the Internet to send an e-mail home, or write and address a letter.
- Learn positive self-talk. Teach your child one comment he can learn to say inside his head to help him "talk away" any feelings of homesickness: "I can get through this." "It's only a few more days!" "I can do this."
What To Expect By Stages And Ages
Preschooler These are the ages when kids are most at risk for homesickness. Separation or losing a parent as well as fear of darkness are prime fears, so most experts agree that preschoolers are not ready to spend even a night away from home unless it's at Grandma's.
School Age Six is the earliest age for spending the night (but only if the child knows the other kid very well). Seven is the age when most mothers feel kids are ready.29 Eight years of age is the usual time for first sleepover invites and when camp directors feel that children are ready for overnight camp. A top reason for severe homesickness at camp for kids this age is "not knowing or liking the other kids."30 Bedwetting, fear of darkness, a dog, or a yelling parent can cause kids to beg to come home even after all the pleading to go away. Be clear about your policy on movie ratings, violent video games, and guns in the home.
Tween Don't assume tweens are "too old" to be homesick—even college kids and adults can have severe bouts of homesickness. Slumber parties become common, so be clear about your rules, especially those regarding moving ratings, unsupervised time on the computer, and "sneaking out" at night. Peer pressure peaks, and dares to experiment are common (especially with alcohol and cigarettes). Beware: a child's first alcoholic drink is usually taken in his home or at the home of a friend!
One Parent's Answer
A mom from Macon writes:
My child wanted so to go away to camp, but worried that he wouldn't have any friends. So I called the camp director and asked her to give me the name of a same-age child and contact information. The two boys started e-mailing and then phoning one another. By the time camp started, they already were best friends.
One Simple Solution
Six Questions to Help Your Kid Feel More Secure
Finding out the answers to these questions may help your child feel more comfortable, whether he's spending the night at someone's house or a few weeks away at camp. Knowing what to expect always boosts security and lowers the risk of homesickness.
- Time frame. What date or time will I arrive, and when will I be leaving?
- Supplies. What should I bring? Do I need any special clothing or my backpack?
- Other kids. Who will be staying over with me? What adults will be there?
- Activities. What will we be doing? Is there a plan?
- Eating. What and when will we eat? Should I eat before I come?
- Special concerns. Do you have any pets? Where does the dog sleep? Where will I sleep? Is anyone else a vegetarian? Do you say prayers before you eat? Is it okay if I don't shower?
More Helpful Advice
Slumber Parties: What Do I Do? by Wilhelminia Ripple, Kathryn Totten, Heather Anderson, and Dianne Lorang
Homesick Blues, Here's What to Do (American Girl Backpack Books), by Pleasant Company
Homesick (We Can Read!), by Jacqueline Sweeney
Ira Sleeps Over, by Bernard Waber (ages 4 to 7)
Slumber Parties, by Penny Warner (ages 9 to 12)
The Summer Camp Handbook: Everything You Need to Find, Choose and Get Ready for Overnight Camp—and Skip the Homesickness, by Christopher A. Thurber and Jon C. Malinowski
Super Slumber Parties (American Girl Library), by Brooks Whitney and Nadine Bernard (ages 9 to 12)
The Sleepover Book, by Margot Griffin and Jane Kurisu (ages 9 to 12)
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