Worry Wise

Freeing yourself and your family from everyday worry, anxiety and doubt

Help, I’m Homesick!

What parents can say to their anxious college student

This week as thousands of students head to college, many of them leaving home for the first time, along with their hopes, dreams, goals, laptops, shower shoes and fuzzy slippers, they’ll be bringing their fears and worries, too. And that’s normal.

Although your child is 100 percent sure that they are the only one feeling this way, the fact is every single student is feeling the uneasiness of this transition. 

And the uneasiness makes sense. Your role as a parent at this point is not to take it away (if you even could!), but to help explain it, normalize it, contain it and most of all help your child understand that it is temporary and it will pass.

Homesickness is not really about missing home, as most students have been very ready on some level to leave the nest (and all the fighting with siblings, dealing with curfews and chores that it is feathered with) for a while now. It’s missing familiar things—the comfort of eating macaroni and cheese and knowing that it’s your kind of macaroni and cheese—with the elbows not the shells. The familiar rhythms of the day; the faces and places where every one knows their name.

Homesickness is really about the transition: between two worlds—they are displaced—for the moment. They are anxious not just about leaving the familiar but facing the great unknown. If your child is unhappy, it’s not that they are in the wrong place. Until they have located themselves in their new context, they’re not going to feel totally at ease. They are literally in transition. Think of a transition as a place in and of itself, with its own culture—homesickness, calls home, relief, joy, excitement, etc. This way you can explain that your student is not lost, she’s disoriented because she’s between contexts.

The change is abrupt; their adjustment, on the other hand, takes longer. But as your child begins to fill in the gaps with new faces that are becoming familiar, foods that they love, their favorite place for coffee or late night snacks, the transition begins to resolve. They will miss home less because the process of college turning into their home is well underway.

Whenever we face uncertainty, it’s not happiness and logic that fill in the blanks. Anxiety, dread, fear have the evolutionary advantage, they race ahead, and tell us stories about how everything could go south. You’ll have the roommate from hell. You won’t make friends. You’ll have no one to eat dinner with. You won’t make the cut academically. You have no idea what you want to do after! Basically you’ll fail miserably, publicly and irrevocably.

Once again, all normal.

Your college student needs to understand that these fears racing through their minds mean little about their own lives and everything about how we—all of us— are wired to handle change. But we can handle change and do. You just have to know what to expect.

When it comes to adjustment, think about a swimming pool. When you first get into a pool, it doesn't feel good. It feels cold. Big transitions like college may feel freezing! You question briefly should I get out, or why did I get in, but then, anticipating what's ahead— the refreshing feeling of floating weightlessly in water— you hang in and are greatly rewarded. It feels good! Why? Did someone change the water, warm it up? No, we adjusted. So with change, even big changes like this one, we must be willing to feel that initial discomfort, ride it out and above all— trust that we'll adjust. Here are some ideas to make the water feel warmer, faster.

Don't Expect to Feel Fantastic at First: Expect the Opposite

The best way to take charge of fear is not to expect that you'll have a seamless process, but actually expect the opposite. If you expect discomfort and normalize it, like slowing down slightly before a bump in the road, it won't send you flying when you hit it. Tell your child to notice each day the increasing amount of time when he isn’t thinking about home or feeling uneasy, but is in the moment.

Know That Emotions Come In Waves

When you are in the middle of a strong emotion, it feels overwhelming like it’s going to knock you down and never end.  If only we had a machine for feelings like for contractions during labor—we’d be able to see that we’re hitting the hardest part but then the pain will break. Knowing the pattern helps ease the intensity.

Remind your student that feelings come and then they do go, and telling yourself that what’s happening is normal and is temporary and that you’ll feel better in a little while (especially if you make a plan to do something—anything, rather than sit alone and let your anxious mind run scared) will help your child feel more in control.

Fast Forward to the End and Put a Time Frame on the Adjustment

Though your child is filled with the to be expected “this will never get better” fears, ask her to think about how she really, truly believes things will turn out. Counter her anxious predictions with the facts. And while you're at it, ask her to estimate how long she thinks it will take to settle into the new routine -- a week? A month? A few? Even if her estimate is off, just being able to foresee the end of the adjustment curve suggests that this is possible (and likely).

Retrace Steps of Previous Successes and Focus on Strengths and Resources

Your child may feel overwhelmed by the challenges she faces, but help her see that she’s in the picture, too. The great competence and determination that got her into college will be what serves her very well there. Ask her how all those previous challenges get worked through? Ask her what she did for herself that was most helpful, and how she can apply those skills and strategies to her current challenge.

Don't Think, Do, and Do Small

Your child may feel like he needs to feel better in order to try new things. The opposite is true. Encourage your student to take small steps everyday. Saying hi to a few more people, poking their head in to their neighbor’s doorway and introducing themselves. Motivation follows behavior. As we see ourselves doing things, we feel more confident that we can. So remind your child to take small steps. Take it one hello at a time. Build up from there. Stay on the surface. You aren’t trying to find all of your lifelong friends in this one week. You just need someone to have dinner with or to help you figure out how the washing machine works. It’s a two-way street. Everyone would like a knock on the door asking—do you want to get dinner? So, you can be that person too.

Be Open to New and Different Experiences

Your child may want to play it safe and only do activities that are familiar. Suggest that he stretch a little. Cast a wider net. Check out student organizations, even new foods or sports or music that he wouldn’t normally try. He might be surprised with what he discovers, and he’ll be meeting people all along the way. Suggest that he be open to meet and greet events that the school offers—just go. If it’s really “lame” he can leave.

Create a Comfort Zone and Down Time: Return to Your Center

As much as this is a time of expansion and exploration, your child needs to be securing his or her base to support all of that growth. So, while it may sound helicopter-ish to talk about these things, that’s just putting a bad name on common sense. Talk to your child about getting enough sleep, eating well, hydrating.  Emotional centering is important too—what is an activity that your teen likes to do—going for walk, working out—okay maybe even playing video games. It’s okay and even important to head back to these things that are in your child’s comfort zone, provided they’re not hiding out there to avoid what’s going on around them.

Many students hit the ground running ready to stay up all night “celebrating” their freedom. Help your child know that while there will be many students who seem to have misplaced their inner compass (and good judgment), many others know that they need to get sleep, eat decent food, and take some time to process and not just party. Even if your child doesn’t “see” other kids making these kinds of decisions on their behalf, reassure them that they are out there; they may just not be public with their needs. But regardless, your child is in charge of himself and need to do the things that are going to help him feel strong and healthy.

Stretch Your Contact With Home: Text Instead of Talking

Some students may be tempted to call home frequently. While the sound of a parent’s voice can be very reassuring, kids can also regress. That’s okay, and can be important at times, but to minimize the effort a child has to take to “rebuild” their confidence, plan set times to talk, and text in between. This will help your child to stretch and prove to themselves that they can cope “without” you in increasingly longer doses.

Parents can follow these steps too! The best things in life come out of change, and this is one that both you and your child have been working toward for many, many years! You’ve (both!) got this. As your student begins to settle in and you notice that you’re waiting to get a text from her instead of vice verse, then you can begin to look at your own transition. Estimate how long it will take for this new situation to feel normal—and above all, remember the swimming pool. It feels uncomfortable at first, but trust that you’ll adjust. Soon you will see— as you hear the sadness turn to excitement in your child’s voice—this is a most wonderful moment to be a parent.

Want to learn more about teaching your child to take charge of fear and worry? Check out my new book, Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: The Updated and Revised Version. Here’s to a great school year for all. 

Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. is a psychologist dedicated to helping children, teens and adults overcome anxiety and make the mind a safer place to live.

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