In this article, Mindpath College Health’s Pallavi Kumar, LMFT, discusses how to cope at college when you miss the comforts of home.
You’ve been waiting to leave home and move away to college for months. You’ve picked out your classes — and probably have an 8 am — designed the layout of your tiny dorm room, and bought matching bedspreads with your roommate.
When move-in day finally comes, you feel excited — and a little nervous. After spending hours at check in, you let your parents unpack your clothes and catch them slyly wiping away a tear. Then you politely ask them to leave.
Moving to college can bring newfound freedom and independence to many young adults. You lazily snooze your morning alarm without hesitation of being scolded. There are no rules, no parental supervision, and no curfews.
This independence seems so thrilling, until you return home for the holidays and are reminded of all that you miss: a crisply made bed, the stuffed animal you hate to admit you miss, how easy it is to hand off laundry. Suddenly, going back to school makes you sad.
This is homesickness: the feeling of emotional distress when you are away from home and in a new and unfamiliar environment. Students can feel homesick throughout the academic year, but it tends to crop up as the holiday season approaches.
Homesickness for college students is similar to how immigrants might feel living in a new country. It’s why some seek comfort from the people, rituals, and traditions of their homeland. In fact, immigrants and international students make up about 28% of higher education enrollment in the United States.
Homesickness is natural and normal, affecting up to 70% of students. And while there is no cure for homesickness, there are some healthy ways for students — and parents — to cope.
Tips for students
Know that you are not alone. Like many students, you may be reluctant to acknowledge homesickness because you fear looking weak or spoiled. There may be guilt associated with leaving home or pressure to live up to the expectations of family members. Whatever the reason, here are a few ways to cope:
- Understand your feelings. Often, homesickness is a sign that you are aware of the life transition you are experiencing.
- Accept your new identity. You are growing and changing into an adult. Lean into exploring who you are.
- Create a comfortable routine. This can give you a sense of belonging. Make sure you incorporate healthy routines that prioritize sleep, exercise, and good nutrition.
- Set expectations. If hearing how much friends and family miss you makes you feel homesick, then ask them to stop (nicely.)
- Foster new friendships. While it can take time to make friends, not every person will fulfill all your needs. It’s important to look for a good friend, not the perfect friend.
- Keep a journal. This can help to process and express your feelings, especially if you follow the RAIN acronym:
- Recognize what is going on
- Allow the experience to be what it is
- Investigate with interest and care
- Nurture with self-compassion
Tips for parents
As a parent, you may notice your child feeling despondent but find it hard to know how to help, especially if they live far away. Here are a few ways to give support:
- Talk about it. Educate yourself and your child about homesickness and its symptoms before they go to college. Reassure that you are there to help.
- Give them space at home. If possible, avoid repurposing your child’s room as soon as they leave for school. Let them know they always have a place at home.
- Acknowledge their feelings. Allow them to vent, share frustrations, and ride out their emotions. Be a soundboard but let them process their own feelings.
- Measure their emotions. Ask your child to rate the intensity of their feelings from 1-10. Ask them to explain what that ranking means. A rank of 5 or 6 likely means they can manage their own feelings, while an 8 or 9 could mean they need direct attention.
- Offer a plan. Make sure they know what to do, where to go, and who to talk to if they need further help. Know they may not act on this plan right away.
- Respect boundaries. Understand that learning to cope with homesickness is part of becoming an adult. Remember that this is about their feelings, not yours.
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