When you’re the caregiver for a young child, you are their whole world. You are one of the people they trust the most, a safety net that they can rely on when the rest of the world seems a little strange or different. This is precisely how a homesick child will likely feel.
As a caregiver, you may encounter a homesick child in a variety of settings, such as:
- At a preschool or daycare
- In a new home after a move
- In a hospital during a long-term illness
In any one of these situations, the first place you start is compassion — but, as a caregiver, this is something you already know. How to address this specific child’s homesickness with compassion, while also helping them move through these emotions, may take a little time. The first step is understanding exactly what homesickness is and where it’s coming from.
Homesickness: Symptoms and Situations
Homesickness can affect any person — of any age — at any point when they feel detached from home. This can happen to a child during their first sleepover or a young adult during their first night at college. Just like homesickness can creep in during different situations, it can also manifest in different ways.
For some people, homesickness is mild and intermittent. You might feel a wistful longing that hits you when you smell a meal that resembles your mom’s cooking or see a piece of furniture or art that looks like one from home. For others, being away from home is extremely distressing. They may become emotional and withdrawn. For children feeling homesick, they might show these emotions by acting irritable or irate. It’s important to recognize that these kids likely don’t understand what they’re feeling or why.
Sometimes, the homesick feeling isn’t actually about the physical home — it’s about the routine. The child might feel very secure in their schedule at home, and the changes in their routine at a new place are difficult to understand. Remember, for a child, there is a great deal of comfort in the familiar, so homesickness is also about the discomfort that comes when we experience big life changes.
Now that you understand the root emotions behind a child’s longing for home, the next step is understanding how to provide comfort for this child’s specific situation.
Home Away from Home: Preschool or Daycare
Some kids get really excited about going to school. They enjoy socializing with friends, learning through play, and spending time with the other adults they respect and trust — namely, you. However, there’s always that one child who struggles to adapt to the change. They might be so preoccupied with missing home that they are hesitant to or even refuse to engage with other children, toys and activities. Here are some ways a homesick child might act out:
- Refuses to play with toys at school because they are different from the toys at home
- Has trouble sharing with other children, especially with items they’ve brought from home
- Shows difficulty falling asleep during naptime because they aren’t as comfortable at school as they are in their rooms at home
A homesick child may demonstrate their emotions in ways that frustrate caregivers, but remember, they are so stuck in an overwhelming attachment to their home that they are reacting from a place of fear, anxiety and possibly even anger. Here are a few ways you can help comfort a homesick child, ease their emotions, and make them feel more at home:
- Ask Mom or Dad to bring in some reminders of home — the child’s most cherished toys, familiar blankets or favorite foods.
- Try to get the child to talk when they are acting withdrawn, irate or emotional. Ask them how they’re feeling. You can try to get little ones to express their emotions by acting out their feelings with dolls.
- Get a few picture books that deal specifically with children feeling homesick at school. When the child feels particularly anxious, you can take them to a comfy, calm space and read the book to try to help them relate to the ways the main character overcomes their emotions.
- Pay attention to times when the child isn’t feeling homesick, and plan similar activities. For example, if the child tends to participate more in musical activities, try to bring in a musical element more often. This will give the child something to look forward to, distracting them from the knot in their chest they feel when they think of home.
A New Home: Homesickness After a Move
Many psychologists agree that younger children tend to adapt more quickly to a big move than older children and teenagers. Whether you’ve moved across town or across the country, your child may experience a sadness rooted in a longing for their old room, their old friends and their old school. Sometimes, this kind of homesickness passes quickly, but if your child takes a little extra time to make friends, the feeling of isolation and loneliness might linger. Here are a few ways you can help a child adjust to a new home and work through their feelings of homesickness:
- Encourage social activities. You can’t force your child to make friends — and vice versa. But you can make sure your child has access to a variety of social situations where they can meet new people. Enroll your child in a team sport, get them involved in your new church’s youth group, sign them up for clubs and extracurriculars or, if your move occurred during the summer, have them attend a summer day camp.
- Plan a trip back to their old city or bring their old friends out for a visit. While their attachment to their old home should fade over time, if you notice the child is really struggling, then a compassionate way to alleviate some of their sadness is to plan a trip back or bring a good friend out to visit.
- Keep the home familiar — at least in the beginning. Try to keep the same décor in the same rooms, so even though they are obviously different, they have a similar feel. Especially try to keep the child’s room decorated as close to their old room as possible.
Hospital Homesickness: Making a Hospital Room Feel Like Home
Nothing is more heartbreaking than a sick child, especially when the illness requires a lengthy hospital stay. Not only could the child miss home, but they could also miss their life before the sickness, along with the freedoms lost. While the child might put on a brave face, there’s also a lot of fear as the child deals with the unknown and unfamiliar.
As a caregiver, whether part of the hospital staff or a family member, you can help ease some of the fear and discomfort by taking a few steps to make the hospital room feel more like home:
- Set up framed photos of friends and family all around the child’s room. This can help remind the child of some of their fondest times and favorite people.
- Keep the school work coming, and maybe even have a teacher or tutor from school come in for sessions. This will help the child maintain a familiar routine.
- Bring in the comforts of home — a blanket from your kid’s bed, favorite toys, books and even some of the same décor. This can help the child feel safer in the hospital room because it’s more familiar.
- Show the child relaxation techniques, like deep breathing, and encourage them to talk about their feelings when homesickness becomes overwhelming. This can help ease moments of anxiety or depression.
- Keep the child focused on how the hospital helps with their healing. Talk about what has been accomplished since they’ve been there, and be sure they know what’s going to happen in the future. This will help the child associate positive emotions with the hospital. In addition, if you talk to the child about what is going to happen, they won’t be so afraid of the unknown.
Dealing with a homesick child — especially one too young to really explain how they feel — can sometimes require trial and error. A technique that works one day might backfire the next. Not only will caregivers need to have compassion, but they’ll also need to tap into a well of patience and determination. Have faith, however, as homesickness often fades with time and can dissipate even more quickly with the guidance of a loving caregiver.