Feeling homesick or anxious is normal when children are away from home, and these feelings do not mean that something is wrong with your child.
Children of all ages can get homesick, but younger children and children who have never been away from home tend to be more prone to homesickness. Children may also be more likely experience homesickness if they are going through a transition in their lives, have family instability, have trouble with emotional regulation, or have been diagnosed with depression or chronic anxiety.
If you are concerned that your child will be homesick or anxious while away, avoid the urge to warn him or her that it may be difficult. Empathize with and listen to any fears, and tell your child that you will help him or her strategize. Avoid bargaining, cajoling, or bribing. Instead, offer support and help your child gain insight into his or her processes.
One way to do that is to talk about how the human brain works. If your child’s brain receives a message that something seems wrong or unknown (like the unfamiliar surroundings of camp), the brain responds in ways to keep the body safe. This can help your child to understand that anxiety and homesickness are how his or her brain is communicating that he/she is in unfamiliar territory.
You can further help your child minimize these feelings with proper preparation and by teaching him/her healthy coping tools. When your child understands the underlying messages of homesickness and anxiety, has a toolbox of positive coping skills at hand, and is aware of the importance of paying attention to his or her feelings, the child will be well-prepared to enjoy time away from home.
Here are seven specific tools to help a child counter homesickness and anxiety:
1. Plan Ahead
A little preparation can go a long way. Give enough notice of an upcoming trip or departure for your child to adjust to the idea, but not so much notice that there’s too much time to fret. Just how far ahead you announce the trip should depend on your child’s developmental stage and the length of stay away from home.
It can be beneficial to hang a wall calendar in a common room. Mark the calendar with the date of departure as well as fun or interesting events that highlight the time away, and occasionally remind your child about these, increasing as the time approaches. This will give your child something to look forward to, which can help ease the transition.
Of course, prior warning is not always possible and plans can change unexpectedly, but allowing your child time to adjust to the idea of staying away from home can be helpful.
2. Practice Self-Care
Another way to help prepare your child for being away is by having him or her learn and practice self-care skills ahead of time. Self-care skills include life-skill basics such as brushing teeth or changing underwear. However, they also include ways to calm, relax, and soothe, such as taking deep, slow breaths, picturing a relaxing scene, or imagining upcoming fun activities and experiences. Calming techniques take practice, and are best learned and practiced at least a few weeks prior to a departure date.
Effective self-care also includes keeping up healthy habits while away from home. Eating well and adequate rest have several benefits. Your child is less likely to enjoy his or her time away if he/she is running low on steam. When a child has insufficient rest or fluctuating blood sugar, internal resources are utilized elsewhere and coping skills become less available. Encourage your child to stay in tip-top shape by making healthy food choices and maintaining regular sleep hours. (If you have a younger child, the responsibility of maintaining healthy habits would of course lie with the caretaker.)
3. Offer Encouragement
Prior to the departure date, discuss the fun things planned for your child while he or she is away from home. Offer your child encouragement about the positive experiences. Encouragement would include the typical, “You can do it!” and, “These are the fun things you will get to do,” as well as reminders of heathy skills, such as, “You know just how to breathe deeply and slowly so your body relaxes.”
4. Positive Self-Talk
Support and encouragement are important, but in the long run, utilizing positive self-talk can be even more powerful. Positive self-talk is encouraging yourself by talking to yourself out loud or in your head. An example of positive self-talk is saying, “I am safe, and even though I am someplace different than usual, it is a good place and someplace where I can have fun.”
As simple as positive self-talk is, it takes a lot of practice to be effective. In other words, saying something positive to yourself once or twice does not usually suffice. Teach your child to encourage or reassure himself/herself many times throughout the day, especially during transitional times, such as upon rising or before bed.
5. Talk It Out
Talk with your child about his or her particular concerns about being away from home. Building your child’s feeling-words vocabulary can help. When he or she uses words that more accurately express his/her emotions about leaving, he/she will more likely feel understood, and it can then be easier to explore potential strategies together.
Help your child to identify who he or she might choose to talk with if he/she feels the need while away. This may be a close friend, sibling, camp counselor, grandparent, or other relative.
6. Bring Along an Element of Home
Bringing along a sense of home in the form of sensory cues (visual, scent, or sound) can help make an environment feel more familiar. Have your child pack a reminder of home, such as a favorite stuffed animal or pillow, a spritz of mom’s perfume on a hankie, a family photo, or favorite music. Also, sending something small along for your child to decorate his or her sleeping area with can help make it feel more personalized, thereby increasing a sense of safety and familiarity.
7. Stay in Touch (Sort Of)
Anxiety and homesickness sometimes stem from a fear of being forgotten while away. Even though frequent phone calls may not be possible during your child’s trip, you can still let your child know that you will not forget about him or her while you are separated.
Regularly scheduled contact may help alleviate anxiety, such as phoning to say goodnight, if possible. However, unscheduled phone calls may increase stress. When a child is at camp, written communication may be best. Whether your child is at camp or spending time with relatives, encourage him or her to write you a note or draw you a picture (or two) for hand delivery when you reunite, and make a point to read and respond after you are reunited.
Note: If anxiety worsens or does not subside after utilizing the coping tools above, your child may need the support of a licensed, qualified counselor.
© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Grace Malonai, PhD, LPCC, Parenting Topic Expert Contributor
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