Homesick Tween or Teen: 8 Ways Parents Can Help

It’s that time of year already, time to make summer plans.

Maybe you find yourself sitting with your hand hovering over the ‘submit’ button on the Sleepaway camp registration form–do you do it? Will your child just survive the two weeks (and then add it to a list of things they will NEVER do again) or will they thrive?

For some parents–parents of kids who appear to jump into new experiences–the decision is easy.

For parents of tweens or teens who struggle to tolerate new experiences and leaving home, the decision to send our kids is much more complex.

Whether it’s the first year at boarding school or college, two weeks at camp, or simply a sleepover with a new friend, this article is for parents who know the turmoil caused by that desperate phone call with your child on the other end begging to come home.

Here are five ways to support your tween or teen when homesickness threatens to hold them back:

1. Normalize
Emphasize that homesickness is a universal experience, almost everyone has experienced distress because of being away from home at some point in their lives. In fact, roughly 70% of college freshmen report feeling homesick during their first semester of school, and when it comes to summer camp, studies show that 90% of campers experience some degree of homesickness. It’s nothing to feel embarrassed or ashamed of, and it doesn’t mean that the experience is no fun.

2. Validate
Homesickness is tough, especially for people who are on the shyer end of the spectrum, or who rely heavily on routine. Let your tween or teen know that you understand how hard being away from home can be and then, focus on ways they can cope; you can make a list of things that might help (I’ll provide some ideas later in this post). You might even tell them a story of when you were homesick and what helped. Emphasize that the overall experience you had was worth the discomfort caused by missing home during some moments of it.

3. Reframe
Homesickness offers us an opportunity to reconnect to what matters most and reflect on what makes us who we are. In fact, homesickness helps us connect to what we want and don’t want from life.

Homesickness is also a sign of true connection and healthy attachment to family and home. It is not a sign that something is wrong, either with your tween or teen, or with the experience they are having.

And so, without glossing over how tough it is when we just want to be home, help your tween or teen reflect on how homesickness offers an opportunity to deepen connections with people, experiences, and places that really matter to them.

4. Prepare
Let your tween or teen know that although homesickness will come unexpectedly, it is possible to predict times when it may be most intense and then prep for how to manage the moment.

Common triggers and ways to handle them might include:

  • Bedtime can be a difficult time, especially if they may be away from a family pet who is part of their sleep routine. A special comfort item (yes as a tween or teen!) might help with this–a small stuffy, a photo, or a pillow that reminds them of their room at home.
  • Tiredness: when exhaustion is part of the equation, it can be harder to keep perspective and remember that emotions don’t last forever. Encourage your tween or teen to get good sleep and give permission to recharge on their own, even if everyone else is socializing.
  • Mealtimes: mealtimes can sometimes be difficult when away from home, especially if foods are unfamiliar and your tween or teen feels like they don’t have a group to eat with. Do a short mental rehearsal of this ahead of time and how to handle it. Maybe they find another person who is alone and strike up a conversation. Maybe they bring a book with them. Ask your teen what might work.
  • Unstructured Times: when we are not kept busy, homesickness can sometimes overwhelm us. Make sure your tween or teen has lots of ways to keep themselves busy during downtimes: books, journals, letter-writing materials, music, and snacks.

5. Identify What Helps
Help your tween or teen come up with some coping strategies that might help (or have helped in similar situations in the past). Some examples might include:

  • Journaling
  • Telling someone about how they feel (e.g. a counselor, other campers, roommate)
  • Writing a letter or postcard home (send some postcards with some addresses and stamps)
  • Listening to music
  • Joining an activity

6. Communicate…just enough
Depending on the situation and guidelines of the place where they are, make a plan for when, how, and how often you and your tween or teen will communicate. You might not follow it exactly (especially the part about them writing to you) but still, take a moment to talk about expectations ahead of time.

For example, a lot of sleepaway camps do not allow phone calls at all; parents communicate through email and snail mail instead. Some camps may allow a phone call in between longer expeditions.

But whatever you do, remember that too many phone calls home can make it harder to really engage in what is going on around them and increase preoccupation with ‘escaping’ back to what’s familiar. Keep phone calls focused on all their new experiences and less about what’s happening at home; you don’t want them to feel like they are missing out. Write your own short notes and letters, emphasizing how proud you are of them for being bold enough to try something new.

If they call upset, let them vent about what’s not going well, validate them, and then see if you can refocus on what’s going well. Because getting through homesick moments is an opportunity to help develop resilient humans.

7. Have a Plan
If you are a parent who has driven across town at midnight to pick up your tween or teen from a sleepover after receiving a tearful phone call or a text from the other parent, you might want to make a plan for what happens if they can’t settle into their new experience.

Ask them what they think might be a good plan of action. Make an agreement that coming home early is not an option this time. Identify a supportive adult and steps for reaching out for help.

8. Trust the Process
Chances are, you’ve done great research and have opted for a summer experience that will be both challenging and rewarding for your tween or teen. And so, trust your gut as a parent and remind yourself of that common phenomenon that parents often experience: our kids save the worst for us; they feel comfortable showing their sadness, their anger, their big feelings with us.

And it’s okay if they walk away from the experience and realize that it wasn’t their thing, even if everyone else seemed to love it.

This does not mean they failed or that you failed them. Instead, know that they are one step closer to figuring out what fills them up, makes them feel good about themselves, and pushes them outside of their comfort zone.

If you would like more information about how to help your tween or teen build confidence, try new things, and handle stress, please reach out. I offer free 15-minute phone consultations and would be honored to help.

Just follow these steps:

  1. Contact Della Pope
  2. Meet with Della and start getting support right away.