written by: Kira Jaines•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 8/15/2011
Dealing with a lonely child away at college is as difficult for parents as it is for the new freshman. But you can find ways to help your child push through the emotional pain of being away from home for the first time.
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Letting Go is Hard for Both of You
To go from being a high school senior to a newbie college freshman is no easy task. Your child -- your young adult -- may go off to this new life excited to be on his or her own or anxious about what lies ahead, most likely both. Either way, chances are you will receive a phone call soon after the semester begins from the young adult who wishes he or she were a child again, safe and secure at home.
The temptation for you to step in and take care of your “baby" may be almost overwhelming. You want to call the dorm manager to find why your child got such a jerk for a roommate and how he or she can get a new one. You want to call Student Life to ask where the experienced students are to help your freshman adjust to college life. What about icebreakers? How often does the resident assistant, or RA, check on the new students to see how they’re doing? It feels like a knife to the gut to realize you can’t just give your kid a hug and whisper that everything will be okay.
But you will not be helping your college student by doing any of those things. Most kids who go off to college do experience homesickness. It’s normal. Everything is new, they are likely juggling more homework than they know what to do with, and they haven’t yet made friends. They call home sad, depressed or even in tears. So, what do you do?
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Fortunately, technology has made dealing with a lonely child away at college much easier than it used to be. Emails are almost instantaneous, and just knowing he or she can call you on the cell phone any time to hear a familiar voice will help your child feel better. If you don’t already have one, buy a cell phone plan that includes unlimited texting. A quick “Hi, how’s your day?" text from you can lessen the feeling of loneliness, and a late night text chat can do the same. Homesickness is often worse while lying in bed waiting for sleep, especially if a bedtime conversation was part of the routine at home. A short conversation and reassurance is often enough to keep the loneliness at bay. Provide encouragement and support, but try not to let the conversation turn into a texting marathon your child may come to depend on. You will find that once he or she does make friends and gets into the swing of college life, you will likely receive fewer late-night texts.
Without doubt, a parent and college freshman’s best friend is video chat. Being able to talk to your child and see him or her at the same time works wonders for loneliness on both sides of the screen. Most college students have laptops, most of which come with webcams. Or you can spring for a higher-quality webcam that sits on top of the computer. Then sign up with a free service such as Skype, Google Chat, or AV from AOL. Facebook also has a Skype-powered video chat function. Video chat is, to borrow an old ad for telephone long-distance, “the next best thing to being there."
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Pay Attention to Tips from Colleges
University websites usually offer tips for parents dealing with a lonely child away at college. Read these, and use them. Remember that colleges have a lot more experience with homesick students than you do. For example, in their freshman year, many kids want to come home on the weekends. But Rutgers University in New Jersey warns that too many weekends at home will only contribute to loneliness when they are back on campus. Students are less likely to make friends or get involved in college activities when they are gone too often. Instead of your child coming home, suggest that you plan a visit to campus, depending on how far away you live. No surprises, though -- let him or her know when you are coming.
Residence Life at Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff suggests that finding something in the mailbox can cheer your young freshman. A long stretch with an empty mailbox can contribute to a feeling of loneliness and depression, and writing a letter will be special and unexpected. Tuck it into a small care package, and it’s sure to make your child feel a little less lonely.
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Don’t Show Worry
Your child’s loneliness may distress you, but don’t let him or her see that. They need your strength and reassurance that all will be fine. NAU’s Residence Life notes that freshmen are more likely to call when feeling sad or “down in the dumps," and less likely to call when they ace a test or have a good day.
However, if your child’s loneliness and homesickness persist and do not taper off as the school year progresses, encourage him or her to contact the Residence or Student Life offices for help. Often, counselors are available who can help your child adjust to being away at college and provide suggestions to help alleviate the loneliness.