(The following excerpt is taken from How to Say It to Your Kids, by Dr. Paul Coleman.)
Tommy placed his backpack on the floor of his cousin's bedroom, the place that he'd call home for the next two weeks. "It looks as if we got everything from the car," his dad said after their long drive. "We'll be going now, Tommy. Have lots of fun!" Tommy's mother hugged him hard. "We'll miss you," she said. "But we want you to enjoy yourself. You always enjoy playing with your cousins." Tommy's parents waved good-bye to their son and left. When they arrived home two hours later, the phone was ringing. "Mom!" Tommy said when she answered it. "I changed my mind. I don't want to stay. I want to come home." Homesickness is not unusual, but parents can make the problem worse if they mishandle it.
Things to Consider
While many children experience homesickness, most feel much better within a day or two. If you can handle their temporary discomfort, they will probably be able to handle it, too. Homesickness may be more pronounced if the family went through a recent loss or stressful period such as a death of a relative or marital separation. Homesickness, while uncomfortable, can make a child feel competent when he learns he can overcome it.
How to Say It
There are three phases: preparation, the actual leaving of the child, and post-separation. What you say at each phase can mean the differencbetween homesickness or away-from-home wellness.
In the preparation phase, listen to your child's concerns and questions, and explain what he can expect while away. "Here is the brochure for camp. As you can see, every day you will take part in activities such as swimming and boating, plus you can pick certain things to do that are special, like archery." TEACH about homesickness if you think it is likely your child will feel lonesome. Don't belabor the point. "When you feel homesick, you may feel kind of sad in your stomach. It just means you miss us. But the feeling goes away after a day or so. It's just a feeling, and it won't hurt you." If your child asks what will happen if he misses you when away from home, EMPATHIZE and TEACH ways he can cope. "Most kids do feel a little lonesome. That's normal. When you feel that way, the best thing to do is some fun activity. Then later that night you can call me and tell me all about your day." If your child protests your leaving, try to find out if he has any legitimate concerns. Maybe he needs to be introduced to another child or the camp counselor to feel more at ease. "Tell me what your worst fear is right now... What would have to happen for you to begin to feel better?" If your child calls you later on, be optimistic and upbeat. Reassure him that any concerns are normal and give suggestions where appropriate. Chances are your child will feel better soon. Hang in there. "I bet you did interesting things today. Tell me what you did." Find out what your child did that made him feel better and praise him. "So when you were feeling lonesome, you went swimming with the other kids. What a great idea." If your child is absolutely miserable and cannot be consoled, he simply may not be ready to be away from home for too long. "It's okay that you came home early. Maybe you have to be a little older to enjoy yourself away from your family."
How Not to Say It
"No one else is feeling this way. You should be excited." That is not reassuring and can make him feel worse. It is better to let him know that it is normal to feel a little sad or scared. "Well, that was a waste of money. Next time you want to go away to camp, don't ask." You're not teaching him anything useful. He'll just feel bad about himself or bad about you. What good does that do? "We'll all miss you so much while you're gone. It won't be the same here without you." Don't make him feel guilty about leaving. Mastering separation from one's family is an important developmental task. "Remember, if you want to come home, just call us and we'll come right away. Call at any hour, day or night." Don't go overboard on the reassurance. You are actually planting the suggestion that he will have a hard time coping. Besides, since many children feel a little homesick, rushing in to rescue them never gives them the opportunity to see that the feeling can go away. "You're too old to get homesick." No, he's not, and he might be feeling that way for good reason. A seventh-grader had to return home from a friend's house because he witnessed his friend's parents arguing and it scared him. Whatever the reason for homesickness, your child is experiencing it. Try to figure out the reasons. Rule of Thumb: If you were very homesick as a child (or not at all homesick), you run the risk of over-identifying with your child. Your child may have feelings different from yours. Be open to that possibility.