College Homesickness and How Parents Can Help

Mother and daughter looking at computer
Homesick college student. Derek Latta/E+/Getty Images

Heading off to college is exciting, but it’s also a time of apprehension and anxiety -- and soon, homesickness too. Some kids feel the pangs when they first arrive. Others get a tinge a few weeks in, once the adrenaline rush of arrival wears off. And still others experience a wallop when they go back to school after the long winter break.

Of course, knowing it’s all to be expected doesn’t make it any less painful for parents whose freshman or first-year grad student calls up in tears far from home.

It's only natural, after all, to long for the familiarity of home, friends, and family when you're suddenly immersed in new surroundings, new schedules, and new people. So that call may make Mom and Dad feel an overwhelming urge to swoop to the rescue or fly junior home. That’s a bad idea for several reasons.

Why Taking a Homesick Kid Home is a Bad Idea

Those first weeks are when your child’s suite mates and new classmates are the most interested in making new friends. A new freshman is welcome at any table in the cafeteria at the beginning; a month into the semester and those tables will hold tight-knit clusters. So a kid who spends those first weekends at home not only postpones and prolongs the inevitable emotions of separation, he’s missing the very things that will make things better - new friends and a new level of comfort that can only be found by sticking it out and settling in.

By swooping to the rescue, you're depriving your kid of the chance to sort things out for himself, to learn to cope and be an independent adult.

It's the kind of helicopter-ish move that achieves the exact opposite of what you intended. But that doesn't mean you can't do anything.

Healthy Ways Parents Can Help

  • Reassurance: Reassure your new college student that what he or she is feeling is natural, expected - and shared. His roommate, the kids down the hall and in every seat of that whatever 101 lecture hall all share those feelings. Reassure him that you love him, that he can handle this and that this too shall pass.
  • Comfort objects & care packages: Remember those comforting touches of home you helped him pack? This is when that cozy blanket, photos of family and friends, teddy bear or a chapter or two of Hogwarts magic comes in handy. If your new freshman went off to school without that favorite throw or his favorite funny photo with his siblings, tuck them into a care package along with some cookies and ship it off. In fact, a care package the second or third week of school is a splendid idea in any case. (Tuck in a DIY photo-festooned pencil cup too.)
  • Campus outings: Encourage your child to get out of his dorm room and do something – and then call and tell you about it. Tell him to explore his new college town, check out the gym, grab a roommate and go to a show, or head down to the outdoor adventures office and sign up for an outing. Dorm RAs set up tons of social events and group outings for the first few weeks of school for precisely this reason - it helps kids meet each other and eases the homesick blues.
  • Fresh air, no texts: Getting outdoors means fresh air and exercise, which makes anyone feel better. And kids who are outdoors, kayaking with new friends or on a dorm-arranged campus scavenger hunt are less likely to be locked in their room, miserably texting friends from back home. Staying in touch with old friends is good, but not if it’s at the expense of meeting new people.
  • The six-week rendezvous: It's easier to endure a separation if there's a time limit, right? It's no coincidence that so many colleges host homecoming reunions or parent weekend about six weeks into the semester. It's the perfect time to visit your new freshman, enough time to let him or her settle in, but not so much as to feel impossible. If you're feeling a bout of the empty nest blues, it will make you feel better too.
  • Campus resources: If your child is having a really difficult time adjusting, there are two additional resources you can suggest. His dorm RA is trained in helping new students acclimate and cope with homesickness. The campus health center's counselors can help too.