“I hate it here; I want to come home.” These are nine words uttered by a brand new college freshman that break a parent’s heart. We watched our kids work hard; we supported them in their college journey, dropped off an excited teen only days ago, and…now this. They are homesick.
College freshmen are often homesick
Many of our teens have left everyone and everything they have ever known. Parents, siblings, pets, and almost every friend in their young lives are miles away. They now live in a small, often cramped dorm room, making a difficult transition even more stressful.
Every support system they knew and everything normal in their lives is gone. They quite literally don’t know what to expect. Feeling homesick seems an entirely rational response.
If your freshman is homesick, they are far from alone. According to the oldest and largest survey of college freshmen, 66% of first-year students report feeling lonely or homesick.
Maybe you, the parent, don’t remember being homesick. Those who study memory tell us that the end of an experience colors our memory of it. The collage of our senior year is clearer in our minds than what we remember of those first weeks of freshman year.
Maybe we toughed it out better because calling our parents was so expensive. But perhaps we were utterly miserable, homesick, and lonely and have just blotted out that unpleasant time.
Either way, like so much about parenting, our kids need our empathy and our ear, and they must figure it out themselves.
Dr. Lisa Damour, renowned psychologist and author of bestselling books Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood and Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, explains that in calling their parents, many freshmen are handing over their emotional trash and by doing so, moving forward.
In a widely read New York Times article, Damour explained that when our kids were little, they handed us their trash and used gum and food they had chewed but chose not to ingest. When they are older, they offer up their emotional trash. They tell us all of their worst feelings and, in the telling, unburden themselves; Damour states,
I cannot say this often enough. Upsetting the parent is the actual solution. One of the things I do in caring for girls is when they come to me upset, I tell them to come back the next day and we will talk tomorrow. I have yet to have a student at the same level of crisis the following day.
While complaining or crying to us, their parents may turn us inside out; in so many cases, just by lending our ear and our murmured support, we are helping our teens begin to solve the problem themselves. Damour advises,
Hopefully most college age students have been away for home for some period of time before they leave for college. One thing parents can do is remind them how they got through that experience.
When college kids are making that freaked out call they can see no past and not future. One of the greatest things that a parent can offer is perspective. It is a way of being both empathetic and forward-looking at the same time.
For most freshmen, feeling homesick is a short stage and soon forgotten. At the time, it is excruciating, and it can last weeks or even months, but for most kids, it lifts. But parents have a role to play here. Dr. Phyllis Goldberg, a psychologist, suggests to parents that they
Listen to what your kids have to say about how they’re feeling before jumping in with solutions. Be available and supportive, letting them know it’s normal and helping them feel confident that they can work it through. Offer suggestions, one at a time, starting with what might be the easiest — text your best friend who understands.
Even if you and your teen are feeling uncomfortable, do not jump into action, says Christina Jones, LCSW,
Resist the temptation to offer to fly them home for the weekend, and even more so, the temptation to fly yourself to them. Definitely, resist the temptation to give them a list of colleges that are close to home that they can transfer to!
Here are a few suggestions to make to an unhappy teen (if they are up for listening to advice):
Nine ideas for homesick college freshmen
1. Get involved
Nothing makes us feel more alone than staring at four walls. There is no easier time to join activities, clubs, religious groups, and other organizations than in the first few weeks of freshman year. Join anything remotely interesting. This is not high school but a chance to reinvent and explore.
2. Get familiar with your unfamiliar surroundings.
Leave the dorms. Wander the campus, go to any events that might be available, and scope out the libraries. The fastest way to make a place feel like home is to get to know it well.
3. Don’t look at your high school friends’ TikTok and Instagram posts and believe, for one minute, that you are getting the whole story.
Most teens have moments or days of homesickness, yet few post it for the world. This is important for our teens to understand. Who would post a picture of themselves crying in their dorm room? Look at social media with the largest grains of salt.
4. Talk to people, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
There is a window of opportunity freshman year when starting a conversation with a perfect stranger is not awkward. Jump through that window; it never opens this wide again.
5. Find your constant.
Suggest they do that thing that comforts them and makes them feel like they are back in their skin again. For some, it is running; for others, it might be listening to music or watching a movie. Find where it all seems right and urge them to visit there as needed.
6. Call home when you need to.
As parents, we are there for our teens. We will not solve their problems but provide a sympathetic ear. If, as a parent, you can remember feeling the same way during your freshman year, this is the moment to share that painful memory.
7. Reach out to others.
They can call or text their closest high school friends, supportive aunts or uncles, siblings (particularly if they are older and have been through homesickness,) their RA, or even a high school teacher who can offer reassurance.
Our teens can brush us off, but the more people who offer the message of encouragement, the more likely they are to hear it.
8. Bribery/rewards are cheap parenting tricks, but some moments call for desperate measures.
If the budget will stretch to it and a new t-shirt, baseball cap, or Starbucks gift card will give them a little lift, who is to say retail therapy doesn’t work?
9. Remind them that there was a time when their high school besties were also strangers.
There is no way they could feel as close to people they have known for days or weeks as they do with people they have known for four years or even 13 or 18 years. But remind them that at some point, the people they are meeting right now may become their closest friends or even their spouse. Try to help them turn dread into excitement.
Finally, there is homesickness, and there is HOMESICKNESS and if you feel that your teen is incapacitated by their sadness, or if you perceive over time that the feelings of sadness are not lifting, or that those feelings are keeping them from normal functioning (e.g., not leaving dorm room or going to class) encourage your student to seek out campus experts who are very experienced with this problem.
For some freshmen, that might be a heart-to-heart talk with their resident advisor, who can provide reassurance and a place to talk. For others, it might be a class dean, peer counselor, or the student mental health center.
More Great Reads:
More thoughts for rising freshmen from kids who have been there, done that Advice for College Freshmen from Recent Grads
How to keep your grades up the first year of college Academic Mistakes of College Freshmen (and How to Do Better)