Homesickness: When The Going (Away) Gets Tough

Jun 17, 2019

BPS Staff

By Brooke Schwartz, LMSW

Summer means warmer weather, outdoor activities, time off from school, and for many…homesickness. The American Academy of Pediatrics defines homesickness as the distress and functional impairment caused by actual or anticipated separation from home and attachment objects (such as parents). As you may know from experience, it’s actually quite common for children, adolescents, and even adults to experience homesickness. And fortunately, there are several tools and tricks that can be effective when working to prevent and address the symptoms.

homesicknessIf you were to imagine a homesick child, what would they look like? While you may be picturing a child who appears sad, nervous, or anxious, there are actually a number of other ways that homesickness may manifest, including the following:

  • In physical symptoms such as gastric and intestinal complaints, sleep disturbances, appetite loss, headache, and fatigue.

  • In behavioral characteristics such as apathy, listlessness, withdrawal, and lack of initiative.

  • In emotional manifestations such as depressive mood, anger, irritability, and feelings of insecurity or loss of control.

Parents and caregivers may consider the following to help prepare themselves and their child for time apart:

  • If possible, involve your child in the decision to spend time away from home. Taking part in even the smallest decisions can increase feelings and perceptions of control, whereas feeling forced to leave home often increases the severity of homesickness. Preparing and packing as a family is often an effective way of involving your child.

  • Discuss the upcoming separation. Contrary to popular belief, talking about homesickness doesn’t cause homesickness. Instead, it can be a way of educating and encouraging the homesick person. By sharing with your child that homesickness is normal and that many people miss something about home when they’re away, you’ll provide them with normalization and validation.

  • Ask questions. You may assume that your child is homesick for their parents or caregivers; however, some children most miss other things about home, such as home cooking, their favorite toys, or the family pet. You may consider asking, “What will you miss most about home?” in order to better understand your child’s concerns and help them start thinking about parts of the separation that might be most difficult for them.

  • Practice communication and correspondence. Ensuring that children know how to communicate with you — whether through snail mail, phone calls, or emails — increases the likelihood that they will maintain some contact with home. You may consider giving your child pre-stamped, preaddressed envelopes and notebook paper so that communicating while apart doesn’t feel as difficult for them.

  • Express enthusiasm and optimism about the fun your child is going to have in the new environment, and try to limit expressing anxiety or ambivalence about the time away from home.

  • Commit to the separation. Promising a child that they can leave if they’re unhappy (e.g., “If you don’t like it, I’ll come pick you up”) reduces their likelihood of success for several reasons. These kinds of agreements indicate that you don’t have confidence in your child’s ability to cope with a normal response to separation, and also prevent their development of effective coping skills by giving them the option to escape.

Because homesickness can manifest in a variety of ways, it can be challenging to identify. And when it does show up, it often won’t remit spontaneously but rather will get better with the use of positive coping skills. Practicing “doing” strategies (observable, behavioral ways of coping) and “thinking” strategies (unobservable, cognitive ways of coping) is often an effective way to combat homesickness. The following “doing” and “thinking” strategies may be helpful for your child:

homesicknessDoing strategies:

  • Do something fun, like play with friends. Not only might this distract from the homesickness, but it will encourage social connection.

  • Do something to feel closer to home. Writing a letter, looking at a family picture, or reading a letter from a family member can increase feelings of connectedness with home.

  • Talk to someone who can help you feel better. At camp, this may be a trusted staff member or mental health professional who can serve as social support during the separation.

Thinking strategies:

  • Think about the parts of the separation that you’re enjoying most. Thinking thoughts along the lines of, “I like that I get to be near a lake over the summer” or “The summers are when I get to make the most new friends” can increase optimism and distract from homesickness.

  • Put time into perspective. Thinking about the days, weeks, or months away as fractions of larger amounts of time (e.g., “I’m spending 8 weeks at camp out of 52 weeks in the year”) can make the time spent apart seem less daunting.

  • Think about what loved ones would say. Imagining how a missed family member or friend would respond to feelings of homesickness is a way of getting vicarious social support.

  • Or in contrast, practice purposeful avoidance. Turning the mind (e.g., reading a book, immersing oneself in an activity, thinking about something positive) when thoughts about home and loved ones pop up is an effective way for some children to distract themselves from homesickness.

Homesickness can be challenging both to experience and tend to. Hopefully, these strategies will be helpful whether you’re anticipating a separation for the summer or down the line!


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