8 Ways to Help Your Child Manage Away from Home
One of the hardest times for a parent is when your child is away from home.
Whether they’re away for just a couple of weeks at a summer school, or they’re going to a boarding school year-round, it’s a time when you want to be able to support them, but – by definition – you aren’t there to do so. It’s even trickier if they’re in a foreign country, perhaps in a different time zone. It might be the very first time they’ve been away from home for more than a night, or the first time that they’ve been with strangers rather than relatives or friends. Or it might be that they’ve had bad experiences before, and they’ve left you wary.
The good news is that being away from home is a great way for your child to develop valuable life skills, such as becoming more independent. They’ll try out new things, such as a hobby that they might fall in love with, that you would never have thought to introduce them to. They’ll make new friends – perhaps from all over the world. And even if they were sad to see you go at the start, when you arrive to pick them up again, they’ll probably be just as sad to be leaving. In this article, we look at the best ways you can help your child be happy away from home.
1. Tell them to be honest about how they feel
When you’re sending your kids away to study elsewhere, for however long that may be, you might feel as if you’re abandoning them with no one to look after them. But of course, you already know that isn’t true. There are people there who will act in loco parentis, and they will make sure to look after your child as you would want them to be looked after.
The only difficulty is that they don’t know your child like you do. You might know that if your child starts spending a lot of time in their room reading, that’s a sign that they’re feeling lonely and unhappy; the staff at a school or summer camp might simply read it as introversion. Conversely, your child might tend to be loud and show-offy to hide that they’re feeling unhappy; the staff might simply believe that they’re boisterous.
The fix is very simple: encourage your child to be honest about how they feel. Staff can help with homesickness – they’ll have experienced it before in all of its manifestations – but they can’t fix a problem they don’t know about. Your child might need some encouragement to understand that the people that they’ve only just met are here to help them – your role can be to reassure them that it’s OK to talk about their feelings, and that they won’t be dismissed.
2. Keep contact to a minimum
It’s going to be very tempting to contact your child constantly. You’ll probably be worrying about them, even though you know those fears are groundless, and you’ll think that it’d reassure them as much as you to hear the sound of your voice. But while advice on helping children cope with being away from home varies, this one is pretty consistent: lots and lots of contact with parents is counterproductive, and will exacerbate homesickness rather than easing it.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t get in touch with your child at all. There might be recommended contact times provided by the school or summer camp, in which case you should stick to those as much as possible. Differences of time zone can make getting in touch tricky, though, and you should definitely avoid phone calls at a time when your child is supposed to be in lessons, doing an activity, or asleep.
Letters are one of the best ways of keeping in touch; there’s no immediate response, and for a child, writing a letter can be more like writing a diary – a time to reflect – rather than a means of communication. The next best option is to text. It’s immediate, but if your child is busy they don’t have to respond immediately, and it’s less emotional than a phone call. If all is going well, your child will probably be too busy with new friends to take your call anyway.
3. Be positive, and don’t create fears your child doesn’t have
Your child might well be nervous before going away, and that’s fair enough. However, you clearly think that being away is going to be good for them – otherwise you wouldn’t be sending them – so make sure you convey that positivity to them. Not only will this help with problems like homesickness, but your enthusiasm will also be infectious, so that they will be more engaged with their activities.
One particular aspect of this is not to create fears that your child doesn’t have. If you’re worried about something, whether rational or otherwise – the weather, the food, the planned activities – then your child may well pick up on it. Saying “I hope the food won’t be too awful for you” or similar will make your child worried unnecessarily; even if the food isn’t what they’re used, for instance if it’s from a different type of cuisine, when surrounded by peers who are tucking in, they’re likely to be quick to adapt. But if you’ve made them wary of it, they might well find faults that aren’t there. Keeping a positive attitude can solve problems before they arise.
4. Use the coping mechanisms that work for your child
You know your child best – think about what you know helps them when they’re feeling stressed or upset. For instance, does it help them to be told that they’re being brave, or will they cope better if you play it cool and downplay the idea that they might be unhappy about being away from home?
Developing their own coping mechanisms is also a part of the progress towards independence to which being away from home can contribute. If they’re away from home for a long period of time, for instance if they’re at boarding school, this becomes particularly relevant; it’s not just homesickness that might be an issue, but all the ups and downs of everyday life, and they will need to figure out ways of dealing with that. You could help by discussing your own coping mechanisms with them, and seeing what they suggest as ways of cheering themselves up.
5. Involve them in the decision and the preparation
If you’re only choosing a summer school for a couple of weeks and your child is relatively young, you might not have thought about involving them much in the process of sending them there. But being involved in the decision-making process and the preparation process can help a lot in making your child feel comfortable with what’s going on. Some advice suggests having a wall calendar with the dates they’ll be away clearly marked, so that they can follow it for themselves. But you can take this idea further than that; you can give them choices where possible, for instance in the details of which course they might prefer to study if there is a range of options.
Involving them in the preparation can also make going away feel less like a leap into the unknown. That might mean talking them through travel arrangements or getting them to take the lead on the packing. The end result might be some outfit choices that you wouldn’t have selected for them yourself, but that’s a small price to pay. Hopefully, by the time they’re getting ready to travel, the process of preparing will mean that they’re excited rather than daunted – and they know their itinerary, the exact address of where they’re going, and where to find the suncream in their suitcase as well.
6. Go through their daily routine with them
So far in this article, we’ve mostly looked at the emotional side of your child being away from home; chiefly, how to help them deal with homesickness while they’re away. But there are practical things to consider about them managing away from home as well, and they’re things that ought to be considered a good while in advance.
In particular, how confident is your child at managing their own daily routine? Are there things that you normally do as a family that not everyone might do – whether that’s a religious ritual, taking vitamins or flossing – that you’d like your child to maintain while they’re away? This becomes more crucial if the things that not everyone might do relate to your child’s health, such as medication that they need to take regularly.
The staff at the school or summer camp will take care of things like medication, but it’s a useful back-up if your child is aware not just that they need to take a pill at 8am every day, but also what that pill does and whether it’s disastrous if they’re distracted with friends and don’t take it until 9am. Even if you feel that your child is relatively independent, it’s worth spending one day making a note of their full routine – it may be that there are things that you do for them through force of habit that they need to try managing for themselves. It might also be useful for them to know which things aren’t essential, so that they aren’t in a panic that their teeth will fall out if they forget to floss for a night or two.
7. Follow the instructions carefully
You’ll probably have received some guidance from the school camp or school that your child is going to be attending, which might involve instructions on what time you should have arrived by and when you’re expected to leave, plus what to pack for your child and what not to pack. Following these instructions can make all the difference. Some of the instructions might seem strange or arbitrary, but you can be sure that the people who wrote them did so for a good reason – perhaps there’s a ban on expensive electronics because they often don’t make it home intact, or many years of sunburned students have led the organisers to insist on sunscreen even if the weather doesn’t seem likely to justify it.
More important still are instructions about when to drop your child off and when to leave. The first evening there can be very important for team-building, making friends and generally settling in. There’ll be a programme of events that will have been planned especially to make your child feel at home. After all, this is the kind of thing that even universities do for their 18-year-old freshers, so it’s not just useful for younger children. Having a parent still present can make kids feel embarrassed about getting fully involved, so do aim to leave at the suggested time, even if you’d prefer a longer goodbye.
8. Remember that confident children get homesick too
A lot of the advice on this list has been focused around quieter or shyer children – those who might be nervous to tell a member of staff that they’re feeling homesick unless you’ve told them it’s OK to do so, or who’ll feel inhibited about joining in with games while you’re still there. But confident, outgoing children can still feel homesick – and it might surprise them as much as it surprises you. It’s important to think about what you can do to help your child feel better about being away from home even if you don’t think they’ll really need it; they might also not expect to feel unhappy and will be even more in need of good coping mechanism than a child who was more inclined to worry about going away.
You don’t necessarily need to explain to your child that you’re doing these things to help them with homesickness; in fact, it may be better not to. In line with point 3 above, saying “you’re going to help with the packing so going away feels less scary” is less helpful than saying “you’re going to help with the packing so you know what’s in your suitcase.” Simply taking the time to think about what will help them feel more confident being away from home can make all the difference.
Image credits: suitcases; winding road; girl; phone; mother and son laughing; teddy bear in pocket; airport; clock; jumping at sunset.