Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

I'm so homesick! Freshman Blues and Psychological Growth

How to help your college freshman cope with being homesick.

This week my phone has been ringing and my email has been filled with questions from parents whose youngsters have left for college. Concerns range from "my daughter hasn't answered her phone or responded to my texts for a week" to "my son keeps calling to ask me what he should eat" to "my daughter is so homesick, she keeps calling in tears." The question is always "what should I do?"

There are many answers to this question but the answer that I have the most trouble with says to parents, "This is your problem. You just have to let them go." Besides the fact that it doesn't recognize the importance of connection throughout life (and the ways that connections change as a child grows into an adult), this response fails to recognize that the entire freshman year of college is a time of transition.

The answer to the question "what do I do?" then, starts with another question: what is a transition?

Mirriam-Webster's Dictionary defines transition as "a movement, development, or evolution from one form, stage, or style to another." In psychoanalysis, it is understood that these developments not only take time, but that transitions are where some of the most important psychological and emotional growth takes place.

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How you help your adolescent manage this transitional process can have an impact on the rest of her or his life (in case you were not already feeling pressured as a parent). This is because first semester freshman year is not when your child becomes an independent adult, but because it is a transition and transitions are part of life. They happen not only when high school students leave for college, but also when college students come home and again when they go back; when they start their sophomore, junior and senior years, when they graduate. The skills you help your adolescent develop will help them when they move into their first home; when they change jobs, go back to grad school, move into a serious relationship and again when they move out of one. Transitions happen when we marry, have children, get ill, have birthdays, get divorced, lose loved ones, etc. etc. In other words, they happen throughout life.

This does not mean the shift from high school to college needs to (or can) be done perfectly. In fact, I have found that the people who say that they and their child had a perfect transition to the college experience have often ignored or forgotten some of the more difficult parts of that time.

So what are the skills we need for coping with transition, and how do you help your college freshman develop them? Numerous university websites offer excellent suggestions for this process. I mentioned some of them in my blog on not letting go too fast.

New York University's Child Study Center has a wonderful website for college freshmen and their parents that says (among other things) that as parents get used to playing "a new role in their child's life, they must readjust their identity as parents. The goal is to develop an adult-to-adult aspect of the parent-child relationship. Children always need parents, but the relationship may become more peer-like."

The key words here are "goal" and "develop." These days most parents don't throw our kids into a pool to teach them to swim. Why would we expect that an eighteen year old would immediately know how to navigate the waters of an adult experience?

This does not mean that your college student needs you the way he or she did even a few months ago. You have in fact been giving them "swimming lessons" for eighteen years. Your job now is more one of encouraging them from the shore.

Two important themes to your cheerleading should be
   1) It is normal to feel anxiety and discomfort during this new experience.
   2) It will change over time.

This period of change is a period of growth for parents and all of their children, including those left behind - and growth is almost always accompanied by confusion, doubt and disorganization. A parent's job at this point is not to make it all better (even if we could) but to help our kids manage these feelings.

Sometimes it's enough to acknowledge that they are going through a transition and that it will be different soon. Sometimes it's helpful to remind them of other times when they've made difficult moves - from elementary to middle school, for example, or middle school to high school; or from one home to another; or from being an only child to being the oldest of four. Sometimes it helps to encourage them to talk to other kids, do things even if they aren't having fun, and get out of their room, even if it's just to take a walk around the campus. 

Almost every guide written for parents of college students these days agrees with University Parent's  suggestion that parents cannot and should not do the work of this transition for our youngsters; but we can and should be available to remind them that they have our support and our concern and our love.

What is also important is to remember that no two youngsters go through this process in exactly the same way. One of your children may call home several times a day, while another may not want to talk to you. You may have loved college while your son hates it.

No matter how they unfold, the experiences of the first weeks are transitional. It is not clear what will come next. But remember that your child has not become a different person overnight. He is not suddenly an adult, separate and independent, but instead, an individual emerging into that part of himself. She still needs you, but in new and different ways. And right now, your job is to help these emerging selves manage the transition. This does not mean interfering in their lives; but it does mean helping them live with and cope with the normal anxiety, confusion and homesickness of this period. It means finding a balance between staying in touch and allowing them to gradually develop more separateness. It also means keeping an ear out (those phone calls are important) for the possibility that there is something more serious going on. Soon your former high school student will not only be, but will also feel like a college student.

 

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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