The New Science of Homesickness

For many kids, nights spent away at camp or school can trigger a tearful bout of homesickness. Now scientists have found the typical pat on the back and soothing words are not the best tonic.

Battling Homesickness

What Works

  • Involve children in the decision to spend time away from home.
  • Tell children that homesickness is normal, but there are ways to help ease the worry, such as writing letters home, sharing their feelings with others and thinking about the fun parts of camp or school.
  • Send children off with a supply of pre-stamped, pre-addressed envelopes and paper for letter writing.
  • Have kids practice beforehand with a two- or three-day sleepover with relatives.
  • Work with children to learn about the camp, school, or hospital ahead of time.
  • If possible, introduce them to other campers, counselors, or teachers ahead of time.
  • Encourage kids, even older teens heading off to college, to make friends with others and seek out trusted adults while away.
  • Before the separation, don't make comments that express anxiety or ambivalence about the child going away.
  • Use a calendar to show exactly the amount of time a child will be away.
  • Don't make a "pick up plan" or a deal with children to bring them home if they don't like the experience of being away.
  • Warn children against keeping feelings of homesickness to themselves.
  • Above all, know whether your child is really ready for a separation. If you're not sure, seek a doctor’s opinion.

What Doesn’t Work

  • Doing nothing because of a belief that nothing would help make things better.
  • Wishful thinking, such as wishing that camp or school would end tomorrow.
  • Doing something angry or mean to get sent home.
  • Trying to escape and get home.

Parents, doctors and camp counselors should instead treat away-from-home woes much like they would common colds: They are real and a normal part of life, but certain prescriptions can lessen the intensity of homesickness. Plus, some simple strategies can help prevent the midnight calls from panicked children.

"For over 100 years camps and schools have patted homesick kids on the back, tried to keep them busy and hoped it will go away," said lead researcher Christopher Thurber, a psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

"But research shows that it's healthier, and more effective to think about prevention,” said Thurber, who is also a research consultant for the American Camp Association.

Missing Mom

By analyzing years of research into the matter, they found that 90 percent of children attending summer camp feel some levels of homesickness and that 20 percent face a serious level of distress that, if untreated, worsens over time.

They also found what works and what doesn’t for lessening children’s longing for home. For instance, wishful thinking, or fantasizing that the camp or school will end the next day, doesn’t work. The report also explained how a combination of coaching parents and educating children about effective coping actually lowered the intensity of first-year campers' homesickness by about 50 percent.

Not every camper misses Mom. The scientists found common factors that predispose a person to homesickness, including lack of experience away from the homestead, and a feeling that parents won’t take their summer-camp blues seriously. Also, when parents force a child or teen to spend time away, the child will feel very little so-called decision control, and campers with lack of say are more likely to feel homesick.

Tear blockers

It is important for parents and doctors to realize and tell kids before any separation that it’s normal, not strange, to feel homesick.

And during the sleepovers, adults can easily find out whether a child is homesick by simply asking them. This will help counselors from overlooking a distressed child who might not express his feelings through the typical tears.

In the report, detailed in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics, the authors urge doctors to add homesickness counseling to camp and school physicals as well as to the care of children in hospitals.