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August 16, 2007

For Your Well-being: How to deal with homesickness

As I was sitting on a friend’s deck this past weekend, a baby bird tumbled out of its nest onto the grass. We watched the bird hop and flap its wings, eventually realizing that its mother had probably gently nudged it out of the nest in an effort to teach it to fly. After several attempts, the baby bird was airborne. Talking with my friend about how hard it must have been for that mother bird to toss her offspring into the air like that, got me thinking about similar challenges we face as human parents.

With the season of sleep-away camps in full swing and the prospect of boarding schools and colleges just around the corner, the issue of homesickness is bound to come up. Leaving home is a normal developmental milestone. Teens leave home to further their education or gain valuable work experience. College today frequently involves some travel abroad. More and more parents are opting for sleep-away camps and boarding schools for younger children. While these events have the potential for tremendous emotional growth and self-confidence, there is also the potential for stress in the form of homesickness.

Homesickness can be defined as the distress and impairment caused by actual or anticipated separation from the familiar. It is actually quite common, in one study occurring in up to 91 percent of adolescent boarding-school students. It occurs equally in boys and girls, although it may manifest itself differently in different children. Most kids will be tearful and withdrawn, but children who act out, swearing or destroying property, for example, may also be suffering from homesickness.

So if homesickness is so universal, what can a family do to prevent it, or at least lessen its effects?

As it turns out, plenty. One of the factors most predictive of homesickness is little prior experience with being away from home. So practice. Perhaps a grandparent or close friend or relative can take your child for a weekend. Children can practice writing letters home and can talk about how things went afterward with their parents. Be careful to keep the conversation optimistic and enthusiastic. We are all anxious about sending our kids away from home for the first time, but discuss your anxieties with a friend or with your pediatrician, not your child.

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