The secret to inoculating kids against homesickness (at any age)
Wouldn’t it be great if we could wave a magic wand and spare our kids from homesickness? No freak-outs mid-sleepover and demands to be driven home. No guilt-inducing letters or desperate texts from summer camp. (“I NEEEED you to come and get me NOW!!”)
The homesick blues happen—a lot. Both girls and boys are affected in equal numbers, observers say. Active, confident, outgoing kids pine for home just as shyer types do. And it can strike at any age.
But as they get older, one contributing factor really stands out: Kids who lack experience practicing separations from home—even if that includes feeling a little homesick—tend to have more trouble.
None of us want to see our kids miserable, of course. But if you want to lower the likelihood of things reaching that point, the best “cure” may be to expose your child to little doses of homesickness throughout childhood.
Think of homesickness as a kind of inoculation against later separations.
Fully 95 percent of summer campers (almost all of them!) feel homesick, about one in five of them at moderate-to-severe levels, says clinical psychologist Christopher Thurber, co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook.
Previous experience of spending a night or weekend at a friend’s house reduces the intensity, research shows. And having lived away at camp, in turn, has been shown to protect kids from homesickness in college.
Yes, all the way in college, many kids are still struggling. An incredible 71 percent of college freshmen get homesick, says a 2016 report by the UCLA Higher Education Institute. (Some have never been away from home, the authors note.)
“Kids need to experience adversity and overcome adversity. That’s how they develop the confidence and self-efficacy to see ‘I got through it!’” says Julie Kingery, an associate professor of psychology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (and a former camp counselor), who has studied child anxiety and homesickness.
We can’t teach our kids resilience, just like we can’t “make” them independent. These are qualities kids can only develop on their own.
Early elementary school is a great time to start.
Start with sleepovers.
The first opportunity for a night away from home usually comes in the form of a sleepover. The “best” age for this depends on your child’s personality and comfort with the situation (maybe younger for Grandma’s, older for a new friend’s). Around 7 to 9 years old is typical.
That small step gives a child exposure to new environments, new people, and new routines. Success—morning comes, I’m alive, I’m eating yummy pancakes in a new place—breeds confidence.
After, you can talk up how it went, what was different, and what, if anything, your child didn’t like.
An 8-year-old with lots of experience away from home has less chance of becoming homesick at camp than a 12-year-old who has never been away, according to Thurber, who’s also strategy director at New Hampshire’s Camp Belknap.
Definitely try summer sleep-away camp, if you can.
It’s like college with training wheels: Camp offers kids the chance to experience adversity and challenges in a safe, comforting setting. Kids get to build resilience while parents get to rehearse how to support their kids’ new attempts to spread their wings.
Campers don’t just learn how to cope with being away from home. They also learn how to take better care of themselves, from keeping track of their own stuff to working together with bunkmates to keep their cabin tidy. It’s also great practice in making up their own minds—choosing from the salad bar, picking out craft supplies, deciding how to spend their free time. In even just a week or two, kids can become more independent and mature by leaps and bounds.
Camp staff see the transformation all the time. “It develops independence that you can’t get when your child stays at home,” says Sarah Disney, director of admissions and former executive director of Pok-O-MacCready Camps in New York’s Adirondacks.
Make going away your kid’s choice.
Kids who feel forced into a stay away from home are more likely to feel homesick. In fact, “low decision control” is one of the most predictive risk factors for homesickness, found Thurber and co-author Edward Walton (an ER physician) in a 2007 Pediatrics report.
Not being able to help choose a summer program, for example, or not knowing much about it, can make kids feel insecure…or defensive or resentful. Once they’re on site, that mindset can make it much harder to integrate into camp life.
What helps: Help kids get themselves ready. Weeks or even months in advance, you can review or even tour possible programs together. Let your child pick activities, if possible. He or she will feel more invested in the situation—and be more comfortable once there. Joining up with a friend can take some of the fear away too, especially for first-timers.
Normalize nerves by meeting homesickness head-on.
It actually helps kids when we let them know that it’s pretty typical to miss home or feel homesick, Thurber and Walton say. Also key: explaining that it’s A-OK to feel this way.
One way to ward off nerves is to ask a kid straightaway: “Are you worried about getting homesick?”… followed by, “Everybody feels that way sometimes. But you’ll be fine.”
As with any strong emotion, giving it a name and talking about it is a relief that gives kids a little ownership over it. Sensing they have permission to feel this way puts them in a better frame of mind to face whatever else is going on. Surprisingly, India Koller, camp director at Phantom Lake YMCA Camp in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, finds that the youngest campers (7- and 8-year-olds) tend to be especially adept at getting over homesickness. They’re good at letting themselves get distracted by fun, she says. Most kids feel better within 24 to 48 hours, usually after a full day of camp activities, Koller adds.
Cue your brave face—and brave words.
Parents’ anxiety about sending kids away is directly associated with how homesick their kids get, Kingery’s research has found. If you’re nervous as you get your child ready and drop her off, those feelings (however normal they can be) can rub off—or fuel similar feelings your child already has.
It’s like when a little one skins his knee. What does he immediately do? Looks up at mom or dad. If mom panics, it’s more likely tears will follow. But when she picks him up calmly with an easygoing “You’re OK; let’s brush you off,” his reaction is tempered.
“They’re always watching, and they look to us for guidance,” Kingery says. “They learn behaviors and reactions by observing our behaviors and reactions, for better or worse.”
Stay positive: “Going to camp is going to be such an adventure! This is going to be so exciting! You’re going to have a great time!”
What not to say: “Be careful!” “Don’t forget to…” “I don’t know what I’ll do without you.” “Gee, I hope you’ll be okay.” Skip the excessive warnings about safety, bedtimes, and nutrition too.
The ultimate avoid: A “pickup deal.” Avoid promising that you’ll pick up your child if he or she just can’t stand it anymore. It almost guarantees a hard time adapting to camp, experts say. And the same is true for sleepovers. Swooping in to rescue undermines the idea that your child is perfectly capable of working out this challenge. Almost all kids are!
“Let go of the control,” Kingery says. Have confidence that those in charge of your child will take good care.Pack comfort.
Whether it’s a slumber party or a two-week camp, have your child do most of the packing, not you. It’s another form of feeling in control. Once there, knowing exactly what you’ve brought brings familiarity. A must-pack: A favorite cuddle toy or pillowcase, if your child has one. It’s a sign of maturity to get comfort from one, not immaturity.
For sleep-away camp, it’s a good idea to include some postcards or stationery with self-addressed stamped envelopes so your child can write to you if she misses home. Your goal: To wish for a letter (you will!) but not feel bummed when you don’t get one because your kid is too happily preoccupied to bother to write.
One more thing: Cut the electronic umbilical cord.
Now that tweens and teens (and, increasingly, younger kids) are always digitally connected to their friends—and used to checking in with us that way too—they’re more tethered to life back home than they may realize.
And that’s not useful for jumping through the developmental hoop of separation. To connect to new people around them, kids have to unplug. Otherwise they just connect virtually with old faces to evade the new and confide their angst.
It’s why most camps have a no-cell-phone policy and don’t allow direct phone calls with parents (longer camps may allow it after a week or two). The immediate connection to us is counterproductive. If a kid is longing for home, camp staffers tend to talk to parents and pass along reassuring messages that show campers “we care, and their parents do too,” Koller says.
You can try the same thing on short stays at a relative’s or friend’s house. Keep calls and texts to a minimum to build the solo muscle. After, you can talk about how it went and heap on the positive reinforcement.
It’s a short road from misery to mastery!
Let kids feel some uneasiness and learn how to deal with it when they’re still young, and they’ll be ready when more lengthy separations happen, like that first semester of college. Who knows? You may be surprised at how well your kid takes it.
“Some of the same kids that were struggling at the start of camp are the ones that are crying when they have to leave,” says Kingery. It’s classic: They wind up having such a good time that they hate for it to end!
And that’s a kind of sadness that we should feel proud to see.
—Senior editor Juanita Covert is a mom of three (ages 6, 8, and 11) who works from her home in Traverse City, Michigan. She’s also a busy hockey mom, softball mom, and Girl Scout troop leader.