Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Dread and Hope of Homesickness

Homesickness.  A word that enters the lexicon of many first year college students and their families.  When it strikes it creates a palpable sense of dread and fear, if not outright panic in some.  Often those involved merely think of this malady as "missing home" and nothing more.  But there is much more to this phenomenon and the way out depends on comprehending it more deeply.

Nearly all students will feel some degree of homesickness, as do many older adults for that matter.  So thinking and fantasizing of home while away is a fairly common state.  Actually, it can be a positive sign of the health of the family when it is not excessive.  There are those, however, who become fixated, even obsessed, about returning home, to the point that they simply cannot function well in their new environment.  When students are so distressed that it causes impairment in daily academic and personal functioning, there is a problem.  This problem can lead to broader concerns having to do with adjusting to college life (a topic which will be more fully addressed in a later post).

So what is really going on if homesickness is more than missing home?  It is a signal of a need to gain adult coping skills such as distress tolerance, stress management and resilience, or facing adversity competently.  As all students are on a journey of independence and autonomy, many, if not most, will weather this process well and without too many bumps and bruises.  The homesick student, however, arrives at school a little behind in this stage of development and therefore must undertake intentional decisions and actions which promote their growth.  Sometimes the home environment was so nurturing and comfortable that the student did not experience much in the way of stress, negative life events, or situations which required their being engaged in active problem-solving.  Oddly, the opposite can be true as well.  Some homesick students may have been under-nurtured and came to rely solely on what was familiar to them, such as the house in which they lived or their high school friendships, no matter how meager these resources were.

There can be signs which may predict later homesickness and/or other adjustment difficulties.  A few illuminating questions may help to discover these signs:
  • Did he need a lot of supervision at home (homework, chores, etc.)?
  • Do her parents talk to other adults for her?
  • Did he have problems with responsibility in work, groups, or teams?
  • Does she lack self-confidence and assertiveness?
  • Has peer pressure been a problem for him?
  • Is it difficult for her to make or keep friends?
Among the best antidotes for homesickness is raising children and teens in such a way as to promote the achievement of developmentally appropriate milestones.  As children age it is ideal for them to acquire increasingly complex defenses and skills, such as assertiveness, problem-solving with peers and adults, active engagement in school and community projects and programs, and establishing supportive relationships and other resources.  If they don't do this before college the pressure to do it when they arrive will be immense. For some this can be too much to bear all at once, partly because they have other immense demands already, such as doing well in school.

Should a student encounter homesickness one approach is to assist them in focusing on developing these same skills, as opposed to providing the same expectations and responses provided in high school.  Encourage them to spend time with classmates, roommates and others, actively getting to know them.  Give them information about how to get involved on campus and in the community.  Most schools have dozens, if not hundreds, of student organizations and work opportunities.  Options for volunteering and engagement in social or political causes abound everywhere; one needs only to take the steps to access them.  As they encounter stress and conflict, which is inevitable for everyone, preach patience, assertive communication, and adapting, rather than escape.

In most cases homesickness will drain away rather quickly for students who focus on this path.  It passes for a simple reason.  They have learned to create another home.  This is an essential life skill which will be involved in many later events such as starting a new job or family.  Parents have an important role in this process as they too must be patient and have faith their adult children will become who they are intended to be, while still remaining connected to home.