As the new university term is well underway and freshers are tentatively (or not so tentatively in some cases) acquainting themselves with life away from home, I have been lurking in the shadowy corners of a few social media groups observing how the Mums are feeling and reading quite a bit about home sickness in students. The picture is quite clear. If the kids are doing well and are happy the Mums are just about managing to hold it together, however hard they are finding it.
On the other hand, if the student is suffering from home sickness and is begging to come back home, the Mums are in absolute turmoil. It is so hard to have an unhappy child that is miles away from you and I think we should all remember that this is not an uncommon experience. So, I have spoken to a few experienced Mums and students who have been through it and thought through a few strategies myself that may help. The following advice will not work for everyone. You know your young adult better than anyone else but I hope you will find something amongst this list that will be helpful.
Things that may help home sickness in students
- Try to identify the cause of the problem. Is it the accommodation, the course, flatmates or simply being away from home? The first three can, in theory, all be changed but the first week is very early to instigate those changes. The latter is something that can be managed.
- Talk about a cut-off point. The general consensus of opinion is that you need at least three weeks to get a feel for what life at university is actually like and to give yourself a chance to adjust to the shock of leaving home. Those three weeks can be very painful. It may be even worse if you see the whole year stretching out ahead of you. It is often best to take it one day at a time at this stage and make a promise to yourself to review the situation in three weeks.
- Enlist some help from the locals! Are there any friends or family who live nearby? It may help if they pop in and say hello. There may be other students at the same university who are from your home town, sports clubs etc. who your young adult could meet up with. Seeing some familiar faces can make the ‘strangeness’ of the new environment subside a little.
- Contact student support services. They can offer advice and support on home sickness in students and may have student mentors who can help.
- Set a date to visit. This gives the student a fixed point to work towards. Offer to have a serious discussion during that visit about moving them back home. This can remove the sense of permanence and makes them feel more in control. Advise them to tell themselves that they’ll just give it until the end of the month and then leave. Then re-assess and give it another week.
- Use short timescales. When things are really bad this could be a few hours. Check in with them twice a day but try to encourage them to do other things in between your calls/messages. Talking about days and weeks before you visit or they come home is less daunting than months.
- Go and visit often. Some students benefit from frequent trips home whilst others find it disruptive. The ‘cold turkey’ approach of staying away for six weeks does not work for everyone. You will need to decide what is best. There may be practical and financial constraints if they are far away.
- Reassure them that this is normal. From what I have read online this week, home sickness in students is extremely common and very normal. They are not alone. Reassure them that there are thousands of students all over the country who feel just like them. Also reassure them that for many students the feelings are transient. This too shall pass!
- Freshers’ week can be the problem not the solution. Freshers’ week is great for some but not for others. Not everyone enjoys it and it can make home sickness in some students worse. The important point is that it is not a true reflection of life at university. Freshers week is really not the time to decide that you want to leave. It can make homesickness worse because everyone ‘appears’ to be having a great time. It can be a little artificial.
- Don’t rule out coming home. Many students do leave university. They come home and get a job; they come home and leave again in 12 months or they come home for a week and then decide to go back. Your life does not end because you did not attend university. Keep the options open. However, it is important that they give it their best shot or they may regret it later. Allow them to sit in the limbo position of ‘I might leave and come home’ for as long as they need to.
- Try lots of freshers activities. Freshers week is not all about partying and drinking. Try to sign up to clubs and societies where there will be likeminded people.
- Go out. Encourage them to accept every invitation to leave the flat. This is the time when you have to ‘fake it ‘til you make it’. Even if it is just a trip to the shops and they don’t really fancy it. If they are not invited, suggest they ask to tag along. Recommend that they hang around the common areas. Do not sit in a bedroom with the door shut!
- Eat and exercise. Use the gym, go for a long walk. Familiarise themselves with the area. Every time they do it, it will feel less strange and more familiar and that will bring comfort.
- Make the room pleasant. Turn it into somewhere that it is nice to relax. Make it comfortable and tidy.
- Keep a diary. It may help to write down feelings in order to rationalise thoughts and put them in perspective. They can look back and see a gradual improvement.
- It won’t be for ever. University is for three or four years and the time spent in halls is around 9 months. Much less if you take off the holidays. It may be worth being a little unhappy for a short period of time in order to achieve long term goals. When the pressure to feel happy is lifted, it can make some people a lot better!
- Set an example. Show them that you are doing something about how you feel. Make it clear that you miss them terribly but that you are doing something positive about it. Tell them about a nice meal that you cooked for yourself, a walk that you went on or how you met up with a friend for coffee. Never tell them that you are walking around the house crying, even if you are!
- Watch out for unhelpful coping mechanisms. Self-soothing with a nice meal, hot bath and listening to music is a brilliant idea but trying to blot things out with excessive drinking, drugs or even self-harm is another matter altogether. This is when the support services at the university and professional help needs to be sought.
Image source – https://kaboompics.com/
If your teen is not due to leave for university for a year or so, it may be helpful if you try some strategies to prepare them. Here are some ideas.
Preparation to leave for university
- Choice of course. Some students get very caught up in the clearing process and end up accepting any old course at any university because they don’t want to be the only one of their friends to be left at home. This is understandable and can work out very well but not always. It can be the root cause of home sickness. It may be better to take a year off and to brush up on some skills that will impress the university of choice. Then re-apply for the next year.
- Encourage them to get away from home (a lot). They should go on school trips, go and stay with family and friends, do some volunteering away from home. It will not be such a shock when they actually leave.
- Equip them with life skills. Ensure that they know how to cook a nutritious meal, clean and use a washing machine. Doing these things in shared flats will help to speed up the settling in process.
- Use social media. They should use social media to get in touch with fellow students before they get to the accommodation. Many universities facilitate this.
- Push them out of their comfort zone. Whist they are in high school, encourage them to join clubs where they don’t know anyone else so that they are forced out of familiar surroundings.
- Think about where they study A levels. For some students, it can be helpful to go to a sixth form in a different school to where they studied GCSEs or to a 6th form college. This removes them from the comfort of their familiar high school and is a practice run for starting at university with new people, buildings and lecturers.
- Discuss feeling homesick before they go. Talk about the fact that they may feel very sad and that they may not like it there! This is what they have worked incredibly hard for and it can be a shock when they find out that they don’t like it. Be clear that you are happy for them to confide in you that they do not like it and that you will not criticise or judge them for it. They will be under tremendous pressure to make a huge success of this! Be clear that coming home is ALWAYS an option but that you expect them to give it a good shot first.
- Prepare for it . If you have suspicions that this may happen, try and prepare. Perhaps pick a university close to home so that frequent visits are not such a logistical (and financial) nightmare. They may even be able to move back home but still carry on with their studies if things are very bad.
What does scientific research have to say about it?
Given the fact that hundreds of thousands of students move away from home for the first time every year, you would think that there would be a lot of research into the phenomenon of home sickness in students but there is surprisingly little.
One study from 2002 compared rates of homesickness in the UK and the Netherlands. Rates of homesickness in the UK were found to be higher than in the Netherlands and to reach levels of 80%. Girls were more likely to have it than boys. Researchers have attempted to define the different elements of homesickness which is experienced differently by different people. They have identified five elements which are:
- Missing family (including feeling missed by family)
- Feeling lonely (including feeling unloved, isolated and uprooted)
- Missing friends (missing people that you can trust and talk to)
- Adjustment difficulties (feeling lost in a new situation)
- Ruminations about home (thinking that home is better than being away, regretting the decision to leave home)
Perhaps it is not surprising that the rates fall for students that have been away from home for longer but that many students continue to have these feelings for a long time. Also, the study indicated that feelings of home sickness in students were associated with prior low self-esteem and low perceived competence suggesting that it may be possible to identify those most at risk and to put measures in place to help them early on. More worryingly, there was evidence that homesickness could be an antecedent of depression underlining the fact that the issue needs to be taken seriously. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Ms_Stroebe2/publication/11341632_Homesickness_among_students_in_two_cultures_Antecedents_and_consequences/links/56ebdd3e08aed740cbb603ec.pdf
A further fascinating study into home sickness in students has identified a relationship between social anxiety and homesickness. It is easy to see how a socially anxious individual would find freshers’ week, in particular, very challenging. This is even more reason for universities to lay on activities for students who will not be happy in very boisterous events and to accommodate students with similar personalities together by using screening questionnaires.
Resources for parents – home sickness in students
Being the parent of a homesick student is stressful and wearing. You are trying to get on with your own life (and possibly care for other siblings) whilst your heart is many miles away with your homesick child. You may be dealing with your own feelings of frustration and disappointment, after all, this is not what it was meant to be like! Is it something that you did wrong? Is it all your fault? You may feel continually distracted and end up putting the butter in the oven and pouring cornflakes in the dog’s bowl!
The truth is that as our children get older it gets harder and harder for us to ‘fix’ their problems and home sickness in students is a classic example. Our instinct is that we want to wade in and make it all okay for them but that is not possible. Perhaps there needs to be a period of it ‘not being all right’ and, believe it or not, they may benefit from that in the long run. It can a very useful and productive period of their life when they learn to develop coping mechanisms and learn a lot about themselves.
This does not mean that everyone will recover and for a few, it can be the start of mental health problems. Trust your instinct and if ,after a few weeks, you have a feeling that all is not well seek help from the professionals. You can get more information from your GP, the university support services or mental health charities. You may also fond the following resources useful for home sickness in students: