There are some kids who can barely wait to unbuckle themselves from the backseat of the car and bound for the bus headed for summer camp, bursting with excitement at the thought of spending a summer away from their parents. And then, there’s your kid, who’s clinging and crying at the thought of having to leave you. Dealing with a child who’s suffering from homesickness isn’t easy, but there are some surprising benefits to those all-too-heavy feelings.
Admit it: Although you don’t want your child to feel sad, it’s kind of sweet that your increasingly independent middle schooler now suddenly wants to be stick by your side and skip camp. But if you’ve already sent them packing (and now you’re getting frantic middle-of-the night messages begging and pleading to be picked up), you might need to understand what homesickness really entails, and what to do about it, if anything.
What Is Homesickness?
Very much like its name implies, homesickness means that your child misses home. It might not mean that they miss their bratty little brother, but they long for the structure (and safety) of the family unit and everything that they know and love. And due to that sense of loss, children, in particular, can start to exhibit a wide range of symptoms, Dr. Avital K. Cohen, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist, tells Romper. “Homesickness can start with nerves but grow into a bigger state of anxiety or stress in some children,” says Dr. Cohen. “Homesickness often starts with physical symptoms of a mild stomach ache, but can also present as becoming tearful or even irritable. As kids get older, they may be able to verbalize that they are missing a parent or their home.”
At What Age Do Kids Start Feeling Homesick?
There is no one age in which homesickness can hit. You might find that your 10-year-old is totally fine not seeing you for the next six to eight weeks, while your 16-year-old is hysterical at the thought of not being home — even for just one night. “These feelings of being homesick can start early and last throughout adulthood,” Dr. Claudia Luiz, PsyD, a psychoanalyst, tells Romper. Babies can start to show signs of separation anxiety at nine months, she explains, but there is no one specific age in which homesickness starts… or stops. Adds Dr. Cohen: “Even adults can be homesick. Homesickness can start as soon as kids are aware that they are not in the place they usually are, where they have the items they feel comfortable with.”
What Are Some Signs Of Homesickness?
If the non-stop calls weren’t a clue, there are other indicators that your child is longing for the creature comforts of home. “Homesickness can look like crying, disinterest in activities or other people, or just a fleeting sadness that passes like a breeze,” says Dr. Luiz. You know your child best, so by being in touch with your child and checking in with them, you can gauge how severe their homesickness is, and give them the space and time they need to adapt to their new environs. Researchers found symptoms can include preoccupying thoughts of home, and these emotions can range from benign to severe.
Interestingly enough, homesickness isn’t confined to the beginning of their time away. Your child might initially be totally fine, and then suddenly start feeling sad days or even weeks into being away. “In general, homesickness can last for a few hours to a few days,” says Dr. Cohen. “It is also common for homesickness to come and go and should not be concerning that a child seemed to be doing fine and then had some moments of homesickness again.” If your child seems to be doing all right otherwise, just offer lots of reassurance that you’re right there if they need you, and remind them of all the fun activities awaiting them in summer camp.
How Can You Prepare Your Child For Potentially Feeling Homesick?
Even though it might be an uncomfortable conversation, you definitely shouldn’t shy away from speaking with your kiddo about maybe missing home. “Talking about the possibility of homesickness is okay,” explains Dr. Cohen. “That way, kids can know what to do if they feel that way, and that it is normal to feel that way.”
Dr. Luiz agrees, adding, “Talking is the best preparation.” That means admitting that you’re going to miss your child just as much as they might miss you, and that missing each other is totally normal. “Telling your child ‘I’m so glad you have these feelings because I’m going to miss you so much too’ explains that it’s love-based, and something to enjoy, so you can look forward to being re-united.” When emotions are clearly discussed and accepted, it can be easier for your child to become aware of how homesickness might feel, and potentially deal with it better.
Should Kids Bring Something From Home To Feel Less Homesick?
Most definitely, the experts say. “Bringing things that are comforting or remind them of home is a great option,” says Dr. Cohen. “A picture of their family, a special item, anything that can provide comfort.” These transitional objects can help your child during tough times when they miss you, and serve as a reminder that summer camp is but a fleeting few weeks away until they are home again. Still, be sure to find out what objects they’re taking to camp with them, so that it’s an item that can be replaced in case it gets lost or (gasp), stolen by a fellow sleepaway camper.
How Do Camps Handle Homesick Campers?
For the most part, summer counselors aren’t surprised when they see a crying camper crouched on their bunk bed. But that doesn’t mean that your child is relegated to sticking it out much longer than they can handle, either. “We have moved away from the tough love approach to many challenges kids face,” explains Dr. Cohen. “While it is important not to immediately send kids home or change camp rules around contacting parents, being compassionate and helping kids remember what to do to stay present at camp and enjoy themselves can be helpful.” You should definitely speak with the directors of your child’s summer camp to determine how they handle homesick campers.
Are There Any Benefits To Being Homesick?
If you thought that sadness and tears were all negative emotions, think again. As it turns out, homesickness does have its positives. “Anytime you overcome a stressful situation, you can increase your awareness of your own resiliency,” says Dr. Cohen. Meaning, once your child gets over those initial waves of sadness due to the separation, they might surprise themselves by their own stick-it-out-ness and decide that they want to stay after all.
“Homesickness is beneficial because it’s a form of communication,” Dr. Luiz adds. “It’s your child’s way of expressing an emotion that may need to be talked about more, and in that way, all feelings are positive when we know how to understand and address them.” So even though your kid crying on the other end of the phone might seem like a big downer, it actually shows that they feel safe enough with you to share these big feelings.
So When Is It Time To Bring A Homesick Child Home From Camp?
Try as you might, there may come a time when your homesick sweetie just needs to pack up their stuff and come home. “You should skip sleepaway summer camp when a child’s homesickness is interfering with functioning and relationship-building,” urges Dr. Luiz. “When your child is too uncomfortable and best served by being allowed to go home, this is not only what is best for the child, but also for the community.”
Unfortunately, there is no golden rule on how long is too long. “If you signed your child up for multiple weeks and they are still miserable without any improvements after the first week, it may be time to talk about doing camp another time,” says Dr. Cohen. “And of course, if the physical symptoms are significantly impacting their health, that would be another consideration.” Dr. Luiz adds: “As long as a child is able to enjoy activities and friendships, the feelings can be ever-present.”
If you and your child do decide to the pull the plug on this camp session, be sure to help them understand that it’s nothing that they did wrong, that their feelings are important, and that they aren’t a failure for leaving early. That way, they’ll have a more positive perspective about sleepaway camp, in case you consider it again in the future.
It’s heartbreaking when your child is feeling homesick, but it can actually be an opportunity for your child to learn resilience and inner strength. Make sure to talk about these potential feelings before your child heads off to to stay away from home overnight, and speak with them if they’re struggling with loneliness. Above all, the feelings of homesickness should be normalized and validated so that it’s not something associated with shame or embarrassment, but rather a response to a deep connection between you and your child and the bond you share.
Thurber, C., Walton, E. “Preventing and treating homesickness” 2007.
Dr. Avital K. Cohen, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist
Dr. Claudia Luiz, PsyD, a psychoanalyst