I recently talked to a friend who made me think about the nature of homesickness. She was outraged when her child’s school told her she couldn’t have any contact with her son during his week-long year 6 residential trip.
“It’s cruel”, she raged, “he’ll be homesick, he’ll need me to reassure him, how can the school know what’s best for him?” It took some convincing, but I persuaded her to take a step back and listen to what they were saying. I also tried to help by offering some insights from my own experiences…
What is homesickness?
We all assume that homesickness is caused by missing the familiarity of our ‘home’ and our loved ones. This is true in part, but it’s not the whole story. In fact, it’s less about missing something than about needing security, protection and love – elements that we deeply associate with home but that are not exclusive to home.
Do adults get homesick?
Yes. We try to hide it, we see it as a sign of weakness and we feel angry with ourselves for giving in to it – but we do get homesick, in the same way and for the same reasons as a child. Homesickness has nothing to do with age, nothing to do with mental stability and nothing to do with being weak – homesickness just is – and the symptoms are the same at any age.
Can homesickness be avoided or treated?
No. Homesickness is not a physical or mental illness, it’s an emotion and like all other emotions it’s unavoidable, spontaneous and inconsistent. The good news is, there are things we can do to lessen its impact and they start before we even leave.
Going back to my opening example, here’s why the school was completely right… my friend was anxious about her son being away from home; she felt that he’d be sad without her and she wanted to reassure him that if he hated it, she’d rush to pick him up and rescue him from the awful experience. In short, my friend was about to let her insecurities influence her son’s mindset and give him reason to think there was something to fear. Instead, she set aside her own worries and simply told him he’d have a lovely time. His school did the rest – providing the needed security, protection and friendship – and I’m pleased to say he had an incredible week full of adventure and fun.
Before you move abroad, be positive about the experience. Embrace the change, get excited and try to avoid indulging people who would let their doubts become yours.
Surround yourself with positivity
At any age, contact with home needs to be regulated or emotions can get in the way. Phone calls and FaceTime can end up with one or both parties sobbing because they miss being together. Far from providing some much-needed reassurance, this only acts to validate and reinforce the negative emotion.
You do need little reminders that everything at home remains the same and will be there when (and if) you return; things that make you feel safe and secure. A great trick is to indulge yourself occasionally – buy some familiar food – us expats do have a bit of a ‘food thing’ going on, with care packages regularly sent from our home country! Perhaps find a way to watch something familiar on TV and make yourself feel ‘at home’ wherever you are, and the feeling will lessen for a while.
What you don’t need is dear old mum sobbing down the phone and saying life will never be the same without you, because then her negativity becomes your negativity and you can’t move on. So, instead of phoning parents, siblings and friends, write to them. That’s right, a good, old-fashioned, analogue letter! Receiving a letter is a wonderful experience and when writing people tend to concentrate on the good and positive; filling their pages with news and questions, rather than bemoaning all the things that are missed.
In between letters, get out there and make the most of your experience; make new friends, connect with people, join clubs, take up sports and fill your days with love and laughter. By recreating feelings of safety, security and familiarity in your new home, you stop needing them and you move on from missing them.
Accept it and embrace it
You can’t change the fact that occasionally you’re going to feel homesick, so try to think differently about it. You feel it because you are loved, treasured and valued and because in turn you love, treasure and value those you have left behind. That’s not a negative thing, it’s great! It means you have a safe, secure and nurturing place in the world that you can return to any time you want… but right now you don’t want that because you’re off on an adventure!