College Transition

As summer begins to wind down and parents are preparing to bid farewell to their beloved college freshmen, it is not uncommon for a surge of emotions to surface.

As summer begins to wind down and parents are preparing to bid farewell to their beloved college freshmen, it is not uncommon for a surge of emotions to surface. While this may come as no surprise, knowing how to navigate those strong emotions can become a real challenge.  In my time as a college counselor, there were a number of challenges that could be expected in a semester, the first being homesickness.

A research brief published by the UCLA Institute of Higher Education (2016) revealed that 71.4% of first year college students reported “occasional or frequent feelings of homesickness or loneliness.”

So, what exactly is homesickness? The term “homesickness” is often associated with an experience at summer camp or some other initial time away from home. Clinically speaking, homesickness is a form of “displacement” or “adjustment.”  Some common feelings of displacement could include: anxiety, sadness, isolating behaviors, ruminating thoughts, and in more extreme cases, depression.

Of course, each individual is different and adjustment exists on a continuum. Over the first few weeks of class, many students share thoughts such as, “I am just counting down the days until the next break, when I can I return home,” and that mindset tends to provide some temporary relief. While it can be helpful to find some “breaks” from those overwhelming emotions, hyper-focusing on the next visit home does not necessarily resolve the issue.

At its core, homesickness is not always about missing the physical structure of home. It’s actually more about a sense of security and familiarity. After all, most students have just moved some distance from home, live in a completely new place, encounter stress that’s never been experienced before, and have to create new relationships from scratch. Talk about uncomfortable. For some, the impulse to go home makes sense, it’s how to “get by” from week to week. But let’s be honest, that travel gets expensive, exhausting, and is time-consuming.  So, if you’re looking for an alternative remedy, here are some ways  to encourage your college student to adjust to this new life.

1) Find a “new normal.” This is a phrase frequently used in the world of grief work, but the concept also holds true for those in the process of adjustment. If part of the problem is a lack of security and familiarity, then muster up the energy to make your current surroundings the norm. Turn your dorm room into your sanctuary – a place you can retreat to when needed, and over time will become your “second home.” Get involved in the community. Find out about student activities, sporting events, and initiate study groups. Getting involved will help create a new rhythm in your life, thus slowly normalizing your new environment.

2) “Ride the wave of emotion.” While some students find it difficult to leave their dorm room, others are doing whatever they can to “distract” themselves from the heaviness of their emotions. This could be helpful for adjusting to the community, but constantly attempting to distract or repress feelings can result in emotional fatigue or exhaustion. Strike a solid balance with engagement and activities, while allowing yourself to experience your feelings without judgement. If you need to, schedule a time during your week to simply sit with your emotions.

3) Remember, what you are experiencing is normal and each person’s adjustment process looks different. There seems to be a lot of shame around expressing the struggle of displacement and adjustment. But it is actually common and healthy to feel a sense of loss about home. Just because you feel homesick doesn’t mean you are broken or unhealthy. Talking to peers could be validating and affirming. If you feel uncomfortable talking to your peers, reach out to your college counseling center.

4)    Remind yourself that each time you are present with tough feelings, you’re building emotional resiliency. Be mindful of your internal self-talk. Negative statements such as, “I’m never going to fit in here,” or “this place will never feel like home,” are not productive. Reframe your thinking by using positive self-talk statements such as, “this is uncomfortable now, but it won’t always feel like this,” or “each day becomes a little easier.” Also, be attuned to statements family and friends are using. Sometimes dialogue with our loved ones can contribute to internal negativity. Phrases like “the house is not the same without you” can actually stunt the adjustment process. It’s okay to gently remind loved ones to reframe statements to more empowering communication.

The transition to college life can be simultaneously exciting and overwhelming for every family member. If you are a parent or care-giver struggling to adjust to the “new normal” at home, we are here to support you through this process too. And remember, be gentle with yourself, adjustment takes time!

Source:

Bates, A.K., Bourke, P.Q. (2016). 2016 Your First Year College Survey. Retrieved from https://www.heri.ucla.edu/brie...

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