Mind Matters — Homesickness

Ever been homesick? Most of us have. “Homesickness is the distress and functional impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home and attachment objects such as parents,” state Christopher Thurber, Ph.D., and Edward Walton, M.D., in Pediatrics: 119 (Jan 2007, p 192-201). (Also available on the web.)

Even though, as a high schooler, I had spent one summer in a journalism camp in Washington, D.C., I don’t remember being terribly homesick at that time. However, years later, when I traveled five hundred miles away to go to graduate school, I do remember being overwhelmed—I was homesick. For me, it felt like nausea, a strong welling in the pit of my stomach. I thought of my family—my parents—as far away. “Ah hah, so this is what homesickness feels like,” I thought. Because I named it, I felt able to take action to rectify the feelings, finding things to do, and started to make friends before school started.

This kind of homesickness, where we begin to differentiate ourselves from our families, our parents, and gain some independence, is necessary for maturing into adulthood.

There are some times when homesickness needs mitigation and is not about maturing into adulthood. Hospitalization of children is one example. Years ago, when children were admitted to the hospital, parents were not allowed to be with them. How many children underwent tonsillectomies, appendectomies, and so on, without being told what was going to occur, and then being left alone in a dark, drab ward with no loved one to comfort them?

While previous experience being away from home may help children “refine coping strategies” for future separations, “… previous experiences away from home did not function as a protective factor in a study of hospitalized children.” In other words, children, whose earliest experiences of separation are negative (hospitalizations, foster care),will then have expectations for future separation that are likewise negative. This exacerbates homesickness.

There are also personality differences that enter into the severity of homesickness. The most common risk factor reported by researchers is “an insecure attachment relationship with primary caregivers.” This occurs when parents, for example, display anxiety or respond to their children inconsistently and unreliably. Where children experience consistent and caring responses, secure attachment is achieved. Such attachment is “associated with independence, a proclivity to explore, and solid social skills…which helps young people adjust to a novel environment.”

Another factor researchers point to is lack of “decision control”: for example, when separations are forced upon children. Ambivalence or anxiety on the part of parents also can exacerbate the effects of homesickness.

There are preventive measures to help ameliorate the effects of homesickness. These include involving children in the decision-making regarding the separation; educating children about how homesickness is normal and that everyone feels it from time to time; teaching coping strategies; and learning about the new environment. Contrary to popular mythology, anyone can experience some feelings of distress when away from their usual environment. Also, talking about homesickness is helpful, and homesickness is not necessarily expressed as sadness, but instead as uneasiness or irritability, even anger. It is also noted that severe homesickness does not abate spontaneously; but active coping measures are needed, such as “support from caregivers in the new environment.” One question to ask: “‘what do you (will you) miss from home?’” This can be a lead for talking about what can help lessen the difficult feelings of homesickness.

Homesickness is universal—take a moment to consider times when you felt homesick. What helped? Or what do you think would have helped?