The New Home Alone

It’s been a week—maybe two or three max—since the wildly hyped up and dreaded drop-off and you’ve almost stopped crying at the drop of a hat at the thought of your baby away at college. But, just as you’re taking a break from drying your tears, your kid is texting or calling about how homesick she is, how she hasn’t found her people, how she can’t find or figure out what to get involved in, and that she’s not feeling the fit she perceived when you toured the campus last year. She seems as inconsolable as when she was a colicky baby and you’re getting about the same amount of sleep worrying about this as you did seventeen years ago. Just as your pediatrician tried to explain to you that this was normal, I am here to tell you, as a college professor for over twenty years, that this too is normal, that your child is not alone and neither are you in feeling anxious about this. The following advice is to help you breathe a little easier. 

Source: Vadim Fomenok/Unsplash

1) Accept the reality that this is a huge life adjustment and process. It has been less than a month. It is far too early to draw conclusions about fit and whether or not to transfer. Some kids may have had more practice being away from home when growing up while others never went to overnight camp or anything like it. Living in such tight quarters with strangers is daunting at first and especially while everything else feels so foreign—the routine, the food, the academic expectations, and the overall sense of place. It’s helpful to let students know that all this cannot—and will not—-be solved easily with quick fixes. Like any life change, it will take time. On my office door hangs a sign on which I have this quotation that seems particularly apt: “Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them now. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps, you will then gradually without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” (Rainer Maria Rilke)

2) Set boundaries. It’s one thing to be there and to listen to your child but it’s another thing if every communication turns into a complaining session. This is likely to have a domino effect where your student wallows further in feeling miserable, dumps on you and feels a bit better and then you are left feeling helpless as to what you can do to improve things. So, then you agonize, complain to your spouse or friend, and pretty soon, the negativity takes on a life of its own. When you next communicate with your child, you are still understandably concerned and want to follow up and she may actually be over it and ready to say something more positive or just ready to dump again, and the whole cycle repeats itself. Also, enabling all the negative energy contributes to entitlement where students then believe that is how they can behave toward professors, advisors, coaches, etc.

3) Differentiate between homesickness and debilitating depression, anxiety and panic. If your student is presenting in ways that feel unsettling and alarming, refer her to campus counseling services. They tend to be highly responsive and resourceful and can ascertain things since they are in person with your student. Perhaps your child will benefit from seeing a counselor regularly, at least for a little while, or perhaps your child might benefit from medication to take the edge off. Encourage your child to seek out the myriad resources on campus and in the community. 

4) Encourage good self-care practices. We all function better, have more energy, and feel more hopeful when we are rested, eating well, feeling healthy and strong in our bodies, and have time for activities that restore, rejuvenate and relax us. This is why good nutrition, adequate sleep, exercise, yoga, meditation, time outdoors, etc. are all so highly recommended. These build up our reserves and resilience, and students benefit from all of this, both in and out of the classroom. Some amount of solitude is essential for creativity and growth. 

5) Resist the urge to swoop in and fix it. It is normal to want to intervene, blow the whistle, or kiss the boo-boo and make it all better—and that has great merit when your kid is teased or falls on the playground and skins her knee, but come college time and it’s usually the least helpful thing to do. Rather than call the school yourself with questions and concerns, rather than ask questions of other parents to be able to pass along the information to your child, and rather than emergency-visiting or having your kid come back home for long weekends, encourage your student to seek out the answers herself. You need not find everything and engineer it for your child. With the number of parents trying to do this for their kids, however well-intended, we need to remember college is not the time for the new playdate. 

6) If part of the crisis seems to be that your kid is having trouble with her roommate, there’s an opportunity here. This is a great time for your student to spend much less time holed up in her room. A student may experiment with studying at the library, asking about private study rooms offered at many schools, or she may want to venture to a funky coffeehouse near campus. Getting out of the room is the single best thing a student can do for herself early on anyway. And when she is in the room, she should leave the door open as much as possible to encourage people to drop in and chat. The more in person time they have, the more meaningful, rich and deep the connections will be, and she will be less reliant on social media for socializing.

7) The grass is not always greener. In this day and age with students on social media so often, they are bound to scroll around, evaluate, and compare their life to the presentations of their friends. Students may get the impression that everyone is having the time of their lives except them. Remember that this can be a very distorted perspective. It is worth reminding your child of this. 

8) Students can benefit from visiting professors in office hours early on in the semester even if they are not needing academic help. The professors may be slightly less swamped than during midterms and advising periods and may feel refreshed to spend time with your student. Despite the unusually high enrollment I have each semester, I know students by name, and many remain in touch; I have even been known to facilitate friendships among current and past students suggesting that people meet because of certain shared interests, quirks, goals, etc. Professors may also be aware of people in the community searching to hire good workers or organizations looking for possible interns or volunteers. Or they might be able to suggest places or people connected to a specific passion or dream of a student. In the best of circumstances then, professors may play a facilitative and generative role in your student’s life. 

9) Reframe homesickness as home-seeking. I have recently heard people referring to empty nesters as free birds. It is a great reframing. Perhaps we need to do the same with the word homesick. Maybe it’s home free—-free of the confining ways someone saw herself or perceived others viewed her, and she is now free in her new place. Or, maybe it’s homeward bound with the understanding and intention that life is a journey to find our own sense of home. Maybe home is really not one place or group of people or type of food after all. Maybe there are lots of places we will call home over the course of our lives. And maybe college is one of those homes. 

10) Nothing lasts forever. Soon enough, your student will graduate and move and will want to return home—but this time, not just home to see you but also to go back to the campus where they planted their dreams, and they might just beam with pride and joy at how they blossomed—and so will you. 

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