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How to Talk to College Students About Home Sickness

Research shows many college students, including my son, have the propensity to become homesick when they head away to school. What can parents do to prevent getting a call from a college student asking to come home?

Next week I will help my 19-year-old son move into a Michigan State University dormitory for his second year. For sure, it’s an exhilarating time – with all the pre-packing and shopping, as well as the curiosity of meeting my son’s new roommate and checking out his new dorm for the first time.

I remember having a conversation with my husband last year after move-in day, as we drove back to Royal Oak from East Lansing. We both agreed we were a little envious of our son. We were certain he was going to thoroughly enjoy being a college student.

It wasn’t until this summer that I discovered my son spent the first months of college homesick and depressed. I was shocked when he told me how hard the transition was.

What research has to say

According to Dr. Edward Walton, director of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at , Royal Oak, my son’s experience is normal. Walton, along with Dr. Christopher Thurber of the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, has studied homesickness in postsecondary students.

“Everyone has to move away at some point,” Walton said. “And, everyone misses something about home.” But for some sufferers, homesickness is so intense it becomes painful and debilitating, he said.

Data from the last census indicates 15 million students are currently enrolled in colleges and universities in the United States alone, and research suggests 7 percent of those students will experience homesickness so bad that it affects their ability to enjoy college.

“Students who are homesick are three times more likely to drop out of college,” Walton said.

Are helicopter parents to blame for homesickness?

Media-fueled perceptions of danger for children has created “helicopter parents,” according to Walton. By definition, helicopter parents are so concerned about safety that they hover over their children and completely manage their lives.

I will admit that I am guilty of being too involved in my son’s life. I try to influence his decision-making and manage his day-to-day agenda because I think I know what is best for him.

According to Walton, in order for my son to happily transition to independence - which he reminded me is the primary goal of successful parenting - I need to take a step back this year.

It’s OK for me to be involved, but it's more important for my son to be involved, Walton said. Students need to make their own decisions and set their own schedules. They need to be engaged.

“Many children have managed schedules,” Walton said. “We make it tough for children to independently manage their lives. We need to teach kids how to succeed with less supervision. We need to let them be independent.”

Time to talk

Before your child heads off to college it’s important to let him or her know everyone feels homesick – it’s normal - then you need to let your student know college is a great new experience and talk about it, Walton said.

“Let your child know it’s OK to talk about being homesick, it’s not going to hurt your feelings if they are,” Walton said, and then work on the problem.

“Tell them to dive into school,” he said.  “Normalize homesickness and then get over it.”

In the end, my son got over his homesickness on his own and is eager to go back to Michigan State this fall. During my conversation with Dr. Walton, I discovered I was guilty of doing many things wrong, but I also unknowingly did a couple of things right! Primarily, my husband and I believed in our son’s ability to succeed and trusted him to make good choices. And, it probably helps that everyone in our family hates texting so we weren’t readily aware that he was so miserable. (If I knew I most likely would have committed the "pick-up deal" sin.) 

Next year, my youngest son will head off to college so I plan on saving these tips and working on each of them. Say a prayer for me, I'll need it!

Judy Davids is the editor of Royal Oak Patch.

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