At this time of year, I start receiving dozens of tearful calls and panicky emails from parents whose children are off at college for the first time—and aren’t adjusting particularly well.
“He calls home several times a day, and feels like he doesn’t have any friends even though he’s playing lacrosse and has joined a fraternity,” one parent lamented. “Even though she’s doing everything right, she just texted me that she wakes up every morning feeling like she wants to cry,” wrote another.
Here’s the thing: It is totally normal for this major transition to be VERY DIFFICULT, especially if you’ve never been on your own before. Navigating making friends and living without family for the first time can be very hard. And that is okay. Kids usually survive the difficulty and discomfort; most grow dramatically because of it.
Tempted to go visit? Bring them home for a weekend?
Think twice before rescuing college students from the difficult emotions that they are facing (anxiety, homesickness, loneliness, etc.). Although their pain often becomes our pain, and we want to do anything that we can to eliminate it, we can actually prolong their pain when we don’t let them struggle through it. Kids learn three things when we try to take away their pain and discomfort:
1) It must be really awful to feel difficult things (i.e., homesickness). This isn’t true. Life is full of difficult emotions; most pass uneventfully. Difficult emotions are not necessarily traumatic, scarring, unnatural—or even to be avoided.
2) They must not be able to handle their difficult emotions on their own. This probably is true if they’ve never handled them independently in the past. Kids who always have problems solved for them don’t know how to solve problems themselves.
3) They are entitled to a life free from pain or difficulty. This is a pernicious (if unconscious) learned belief. No one is entitled to a life free from adversity. Kids need to learn to tolerate uncomfortable transitions, challenges, boredom and the like because life is full of them.
What to do instead of trying to rescue them
Instead of trying to mask or take away kids’ pain, we can help them feel more comfortable with discomfort by encouraging them to ACCEPT their difficult feelings. Here are four ways to do that.
1. Recognize that their emotions are real—then coach them through them. The key is not to deny what they are feeling (e.g., saying something like, “But you have so many new friends!” when they say they are lonely). Instead, encourage kids to lean into their feelings, even if they are painful. Ask them to narrate what they are going through, without exaggerating or sugar-coating it. “I’m feeling anxious right now,” they might say, or “I’m not sure why I feel stressed and nervous.” Encourage them to hang in there with unpleasant emotions. See if they can objectify their feelings. Ask, “Where in your body do you feel anxious/lonely/homesick/sad? Does the feeling have a color? A texture? A shape?”
2. Don’t encourage kids to distract themselves from their difficult emotions before they’ve acknowledged them. Leaning on numbing behaviors (drinking, going home, spending hours on Facebook, eating junk food) tends to prolong both the transition and the difficult emotions.
3. Practice self-compassion and kindness. Research shows that college students who are kind to themselves and accept that their difficult feelings are part of the universal experience of leaving home fare better than those who are critical of themselves. Self-compassionate students are less prone to homesickness and depression, and they tend to be more satisfied with their social lives and choice of college.
4. Finally, encourage kids not to compare themselves to other people! Everyone makes transitions differently. If they spend time on Facebook, they will likely end up feeling like everyone else is having more fun than them. I’ve never seen anyone post a selfie on FB or Instagram looking miserable with the update “I spent the last hour crying because I miss my mom so much.” Remind kids that social media is, for most people, a giant performance where they posture to make themselves look better than they actually feel.
A word of caution: While it’s important to let college kids know they can rely on their own inner capacities and family support to get through tough times, it’s also important to let them know that reaching out for help is appropriate—especially if they have any suicidal thoughts and incapacitating depression or anxiety. If the situation seems intractable, parents should consider encouraging kids to seek mental health services through their college health department or the National Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK).
While it’s true that a happy life comes from positive emotions, it also comes from resilience—from having the tools we need to cope with life’s inevitable difficulties and painful moments. Like it or not, we tend to develop the skills we need to cope with homesickness only when we need them: when we’re away from home for the first time.