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Freshman Homesickness

What to do when your college freshman calls you saying, "I wanna come home."

A former client of mine recently sent me a text photo of her new ankle tattoo. It read, “This too shall pass.” This was the mantra that she developed and used to manage her mind when it began fly fishing for phantoms that led to overwhelming feelings of stress.

The first six weeks of college are a crucial time for students to acclimate themselves to their new environments. College is often the beginning of discovering who they are, charting their own course, and trying on new identities. During this time, your teen will likely feel very unsettled. This feeling of uncertainty can be exacerbated by social media evidence that everyone else is doing just fine and the “Freshman Myth.”

The Freshman Myth is the phenomenon of teenagers who are bombarded with promises of instant best friends, endless parties, and the strong sense that these will be the “best years of their lives.” These promises are propagated by social media, television, and movies. In reality, many girls feel deeply disconnected in their first year of college, especially if they aren’t aware that this transition will be difficult. From their perspectives, it seems like everyone else is having the time of their lives while they sit alone in their rooms watching The Bachelorette or Real Housewives.

The best way to undo the Freshman Myth is by breaking the silence about the loneliness and disconnection that comes with these early months. Reminding teens that this can be a difficult time and helping them get through it can greatly decrease the feelings of failure and isolation.

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Learning who they are is an ongoing journey, but in the first year of college, they will begin asking themselves tough questions like: Who am I? Why am I here? What am I doing? Where am I going? Who are my people?

As a result of this recalibration, teens often experience homesickness during this time. They will miss their friends from home, their pets, and even you! Issues with roommates or dorm life may increase their sense of isolation and removal from the comforts of home. There can be a fair number of tearful phone calls home, and that is to be expected. How can you guide your teen? These six tips will help you to support your teen as they learn to manage their feelings of homesickness.

  • Address homesickness and panic head-on. Feeling homesick is a normal part of the transition to college; however, many teens are surprised by how overwhelming these feelings can be. Set up the expectation that it’s okay to be homesick. Remind them of their next trip home and provide them with pictures and video calls when possible. For many teens, there’s a sense that they have to go home right now or they won’t make it. Try to ease them through that feeling without giving in as much as you can: let them know their feelings are normal and help them to brainstorm ways to manage their emotions. As they get closer to people at school and settle into their new environment, the homesickness will fade.
  • Allow your teen to set the tone of your new connection. As he or she develops a new sense of equilibrium, it’s important to let them control the tenure of your new bond. Don’t call every day (at least not at first). Don’t require your teen to call you every day. Instead, let them determine how frequently you will talk and at what level. Depending on how often your teen reaches out, this can be a very difficult dance. For some teens, daily texts and calls may be the norm, while others may only reach out when they need something. When your teen comes to you with a problem, keep in mind that pushing him or her can often create more resistance. Using phrases that start with “You just need to…” or “Why aren’t you…” can stop your teen from connecting with you. A mindful, steady voice can be the most helpful way to stay connected. Try phrases like, “Let’s figure this out together,” or “What would make you feel better right now?”
  • Ask open-ended questions. Be sure to ask about how they are feeling and adjusting, in addition to the usual questions. Invite them to tell you about their roommates, professors, and classes, how they spend their free time, or even something as minimal as the cafeteria food. Anything that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” is a fine place to begin.
  • Remind them they aren’t alone. Listen to what they are NOT saying. If your teen is showing signs of distress either overtly or covertly, trust your gut and ask them if they are okay. It’s all right to let them know you’re concerned. Let them know that if for any reason they don’t feel comfortable talking to you, there are other options both on or off campus: local and virtual support via a therapist or life coach, academic support centers, professors, advisors, and RAs, depending on what their challenge is.
  • Be a solid wall for your teen; a steady even presence they can swim back to for support and then push off from. Sometimes you won’t be able to see how your demeanor impacts them, but it never hurts to be a source of calm and strength.
  • Keep your expectations and pressures low. Remember that a 4.0 is likely not a reasonable expectation in college, even if that was the norm for high school. There are new rules and dynamics in play, and a grade drop is to be expected. Try to frame grades as an important part of college, but not the only thing that matters. Especially in their first year, when many students have to take a range of classes, academic struggles are common. Lower grades can also be upsetting to your student as well, so make sure you ask questions about how they’re coping with the stress of their workload.

Using these tips, you and your teen can develop the tools that they need to manage these common feelings of homesickness, too.

More from Pamela S. Willsey LICSW, BCD, PCC
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