Homesickness – Causes, Signs and Symptoms

Homesickness

Summary

Homesickness is a natural feeling of loneliness or disorientation that occurs when a person is separated from familiar people, routines and environments. Homesickness can occur at any age, but is especially prevalent in children who are separated from their parents or primary caregivers. Teenagers may also experience strong feelings of homesickness when beginning college studies in another city or state. Both children and adults may experience homesickness when they move to unfamiliar surroundings.

People who are homesick are often sad or even depressed. Homesickness tends to become worse when a person has free time, such as early in the morning, just before bed or during periods of rest. People who are experiencing other trauma – such as a divorce in the family or the loss of a loved one – may be especially vulnerable to homesickness.

Children are particularly likely to display symptoms related to their homesickness, including withdrawing from others, refusing to participate in activities or engaging in behaviors designed to seek attention.

People who are homesick rarely require visits to a physician or medical treatment. Over time, homesickness typically subsides as the person gradually makes new friends and becomes more familiar and comfortable with the new surroundings. Occasionally, homesickness may be so severe that a patient requires professional help to deal with the associated emotions.

Homesickness cannot always be prevented. However, people can take preparatory steps that may help them to weather the period of transition that occurs when someone leaves familiar surroundings. In particular, parents can take several steps to help children combat homesickness (e.g., planning practice separations, visiting the place where the child will be staying).

About homesickness

Homesickness is a normal feeling of sadness or melancholy that occurs when a person is separated from the people, places and routines that provide them with a sense of well-being and belonging. People who are homesick begin to miss the comforts of home, including things they may normally take for granted.

Homesickness is especially prevalent in children who are separated from their parents or primary caregivers. Younger children are even more susceptible to homesickness than older children. Homesickness may also affect teenagers, particularly after they leave home to attend college in another city or state.

Adults, too, can experience bouts of homesickness, frequently after a move. However, these emotions generally become less severe as people grow older and gain a better perspective on their feelings and the temporary nature of homesickness. After a period of adjustment, most people who are homesick will begin to feel more comfortable in their new surroundings. Gradually, feelings of homesickness will pass.

Although homesickness can cause symptoms of real distress, it is important to remember that it is a temporary condition. Many people make gradual adjustments to their new environment and may not even notice that the homesickness has dissipated.

Potential causes of homesickness

Homesickness is a natural feeling of loneliness or disorientation that occurs when people are separated from familiar people, places and routines that provide a sense of security.

In some cases, other psychological factors may also be at work. For example, children who leave home and attend sleepaway camp for the first time may feel a sense of rejection, particularly if they had no say in the decision. They may have similar feelings if their family is moving to a new city and they have to leave their friends.

People experiencing other trauma – such as a divorce in the family or the loss of a loved one – may be especially vulnerable to homesickness. Familiar people, places and routines provide an additional source of comfort during difficult times.

Certain types of people are especially vulnerable to homesickness. They include:

  • Children at sleepaway camp or those who stay away from home for an extended period of time
  • Teenagers who take a summer job at a camp, resort or other place far from home
  • Teens who attend college in a city or state far from home
  • Children and adults who move to a new city or state
  • Immigrants who settle in a new country

Signs and symptoms of homesickness

People who are homesick are often sad or even depressed. Children are particularly likely to display symptoms related to their homesickness. They may withdraw from others, refuse to participate in activities or engage in behaviors designed to seek attention. They may cry, experience insomnia and complain of physical ailments such as stomachache, sore throat, headache, nausea or flu-like symptoms. They may feign illness to avoid attending a new school.

Homesickness tends to become worse when a person has free time, such as early in the morning, just before bed or during periods of rest.

Diagnosis and treatment of homesickness

People who are homesick rarely require visits to a physician or medical treatment. Over time, the negative feelings associated with homesickness will typically subside and the person will gradually become more comfortable with the new surroundings. For example, children who become homesick at sleepaway camp or teenagers who become homesick after starting college will likely notice these feelings diminish after they begin to make new friends.

The physician may refer the patient to a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health professional if homesickness or another mental health disorder appears to be at the root of the patient’s symptoms. Psychotherapy can help patients address the origin of their feelings and learn new ways to better cope with homesickness. College students can seek assistance through their institution’s student counseling department.

Prevention methods for homesickness

Homesickness is a natural emotion, and it cannot always be prevented. People who are homesick can help ward off their feelings by keeping busy and by talking to others about what they are feeling. Meeting new people and making friends is one of the best ways to prevent homesickness. For example, immigrants from other countries may find comfort in local communities that include people who share their cultural heritage. 

Although people of all ages can experience homesickness, it often takes its greatest toll on children. Parents can take several steps to help reduce the level of homesickness that their child is likely to feel when separated from home. Children may experience homesickness when the family relocates to another city or when the child attends sleepaway camp.

Tips that can help ease a child’s homesickness include:

  • Involve the child in the selection process. Let the child help decide when to go to camp, what type of camp to attend and for how long. When moving, allow the child to participate in looking at new homes. Provide them with plenty of information about where they are going and what they will be doing when they get there.

  • Talk to the child about what is expected during the move or separation. Parents are urged to explain why the change is either necessary or desirable, and should ask the child about any fears or concerns. Keeping this conversation focused on positives and offering reassurance can make a big difference.

  • Plan practice separations. Encouraging the child to spend a night away from home or having the child attend a day camp can help the child build up to bigger separations.

  • Prearrange communications. If the child is attending camp, parents are urged to find out ahead of time about the camp’s policies on phone calls so there will be no surprises to the child. If the child is going away to spend time with a relative or for another reason, a calendar of pre-established calling times and frequencies should be established. When moving, make sure that children can still contact or visit their old friends.

  • Visit the place where children will be staying. A child’s fears may be allayed by seeing the place where they will be staying, as well as seeing areas such as the bedroom, bathroom, etc.

  • Alert adults to possible homesickness. Parents are urged to discuss the potential for homesickness with camp counselors or teachers in a new school. This will help them prepare for such an eventuality and to better address it should it occur.

  • Allow the child to bring familiar items with them. A favorite pair of pajamas, pillow, stuffed animal or other belonging can help children feel more comfortable in an unfamiliar setting or during a move, when most of their items are packed away. A care package from home can also remind children that loving parents await them upon their return.

Parents are urged to maintain a cheerful attitude. It is important not to bribe children, or to make unrealistic promises if things do not go well. This sends the message that the child will be unable to handle the separation.

Despite good preparation, children sometimes still experience overwhelming feelings of homesickness. This is most likely to occur during the initial days of separation. It is important for parents to encourage the child to stick things out. Parents are urged to remain calm, to listen to their child, and to offer feedback that is positive and encouraging.

In some cases, a parental visit to the child may help soothe a child’s fears. However, if this does not work – or is not feasible – parents may have no other choice than to bring the child home. Children who suffer when away from home are doing themselves no good, and might actually be doing themselves harm.

When children need to come home, it is important that they not feel like failures. In such cases, parents are urged to remind children that future opportunities to try again will exist when the child is ready.

Questions for your doctor about homesickness

Preparing questions in advance can help patients to have more meaningful discussions with their physicians regarding their conditions. Patients or parents may wish to ask their doctor the following questions related to homesickness:

  1. How can I combat my own homesickness?
  2. How can I ease the transition for my teen from home to college?
  3. How can I help prepare my child for being away from home?
  4. What steps can I take to help prevent my child from becoming homesick?
  5. What are the signs that my child may be homesick?
  6. What questions should I ask the staff at my child’s camp?
  7. How can I reassure my child if he/she complains of homesickness?
  8. What should I do if my child says he/she wants to come home?
  9. How will I know if my child’s homesickness is severe enough to require help?
  10. What treatment options do you recommend for such severe homesickness?
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