Have you ever been homesick? Really missing your family? I was just reading letters from children at camp and homesickness seems to take center stage in most first week away letters. In between, “I am having a great time learning to swim, doing arts and crafts, riding horses, making friends, the food is awful or the food is great!” are all calls of loneliness saying, “Please come and get me, I’m not ready for this yet!” Young children are often conflicted. They want a good time with their friends but miss the familiarity of home.
My father would never let me go away to overnight camp or sleepovers so I didn’t have the chance to experience homesickness as a young child. I was jealous of my cousin who participated in a two month away camp program. She came home raving about her summer exploits. I never heard about her loneliness because by the end of the summer those days were forgotten. She had friends, learned to swim and did art.
A month ago, I wrote about the 21 year-old street kid my husband and I mentored who is now in Job Corps. Frank had been on his own living on the streets for 3 years so you would think that being homesick would not be an issue for him. Since he left our home he has called each week to let us know how he is doing. So far he tells us that the program is fantastic, but after the first week of elation we could hear a tone in his voice that indicates he is lonesome. The streets, his friends and our home were familiar, even if some of the situations were not good.
I know Frank will get through this period of loneliness over the next few weeks but as his adopted family we find ourselves concerned and a bit saddened. How can we show him that we are just an arm’s length away and he has not been abandoned? We care for him and wish him well.
Homesickness is a feeling of nostalgia for the familiar. It might be caused by missing your bedroom, family or neighborhood (yes, even sleeping under a bush in a park). It can be triggered by change in food, odors or routines. Lots of kids know that camp and sleepovers are going to be fun but, at the same time, they start to miss their own bed and teddy bear. Parents hear sad, fearful and upset voices when their children call home.
What is a parent to do: keep their child home all of the time or force them to “go away and grow up”? Of course, there is a middle ground that involves recognizing the likelihood of withdrawal and anxiety, and developing stepping stones towards independence? Grandparents, aunts, uncles and play dates play a role. These relatives and friends can take your child for an overnight, give you a needed rest and provide an early transition for time away from home.
Consider sending your child off on the overnight adventure with a piece of home. A favorite blanket, pillow,or toy may be just the support that is needed. Increasing time away is good practice before sending your child to a longer camping experience.
Going to a private overnight school or a several week summer camp needs even more preparation. Talk to your child about the possibility of homesickness so he or she knows that it is normal and will subside. Explain to your young one that being away is not a punishment but a learning and fun opportunity. Show that you still care by sending regular gift packages, letters and pictures. An occasional phone call is good but be prepared that it may also produce a new request to come home.
Be sure that your child is going to be busy and encourage him or her to sign up for lots of activities at camp or school. Send a calendar to mark off time and stationary with stamped envelopes to encourage your child to communicate. These activities help get feelings out in the open.
If you are concerned about your child’s emotional state, notify the counselor and ask for a little extra support. Encourage your child to talk to a friend and share feelings of loneliness and suggest that he end the discussion with something that is fun like having a pillow fight.
Once the initial period passes, in most cases, homesickness subsides and the good stories begin. However, if it doesn’t, you may have a real problem that needs your attention. Is your child being bullied, isolated or forced to do unreasonable tasks? A visit can help you assess the situation and separate myth from reality.
Growing up and gaining independence is not easy. I often wonder how my grandfather and his friend came alone to the United States right off the farm at the age of 14. He did well, eventually gaining a seat on the stock exchange. Today it would be inconceivable to send a child off at the age of 14 to make his fortune.
Children are stronger than we think and, as parents, it is part of our job to provide a safe path to independence. Being away from home helps your children learn to think independently and problem solve. It exposes them to different styles of living, and helps them gain insight into their own strengths and weaknesses.