UK Boarding schools provide an amazing all-round education with a strong emphasis on holistic development. As a parent, it is one of the best decisions you can make for your child. No matter how convinced you are of this, it is a heart-wrenching experience to hear they’re homesick. Receiving tearful phone calls and miserable emails from your child, having just started boarding school for the first time. I know because I have been one of those parents.
Homesickness is a very human emotion and is tough on both pupil and parent. It can affect any pupil at any time in their boarding life and the majority will have a few teething problems when they first start. Whilst separation from home builds independence, self-confidence, resilience and social skills, missing home is completely normal.
Children will experience varying degrees of homesickness, no matter what their age. For some pupils it is relatively mild and passes after a few day and for others, as in the case of my younger daughter, it may take weeks or even months to reduce the feeling of homesickness. It can be physically and emotionally tiring for all of those involved. Fortunately, there are strategies to help parents and pupils’ cope.
A few pointers which I employed to cope with my daughter’s homesickness:
Work With the House Boarding Team
Schools will have homesickness policies. Listen to your child’s boarding house team and trust their experience in supporting your child. If you are in regular communication with them and they tell you that there is no need for concern as they have the situation in hand, trust them. The house boarding team take their responsibilities very seriously and you can be assured that your child is in safe hands. If they felt there was any need for concern, they will let you know and discuss with you how best to address the situation. Teach your child to recognise when they need support and who to get it from. This is a positive step towards their independence and, working in partnership with the school, is to be encouraged.
Encourage them to Keep Busy
During the first few weeks at boarding school your child will be very busy getting accustomed to their new timetable and extra-curricular activities. Usually, it is during downtime or in the evenings when they start to miss home, and this can lead to a lack of enthusiasm and malaise in school life.
Encourage them to keep active with lots of exercise and fresh air and to try all the new things on offer at their school. By being busy they will start to feel settled. My own daughter was terribly homesick after her first half-term, but she found that by joining as many activities as she could really helped. She joined running club, CCF, the choir, crochet club and DofE and soon become part of the school community. When the time was right, she dropped a couple of things as she found herself too busy, but it certainly helped in the early days.
Try not to contact your child too much during the first few weeks as it can induce their homesickness. Keep phone calls relatively short, as you can always ring again another day. If your child shows signs of being upset or if you do, try to bring your conversation to a speedy end. Work with the house staff to find a suitable time which creates a structured routine which works best for you and your child. It is often easier to manage at prep school than it is at senior school as prep schools usually don’t allow uncontrolled access to mobile phones. By establishing certain fixed times to call, such as before breakfast or evening registration, creates a routine. You also then both have something to talk about.
Be positive – ask them about what has gone well in their day and what is coming up. Try to avoid discussions about what you are doing at home or what their younger siblings have been up to, as this only emphasises what they are missing. Don’t dwell on the negatives.
My daughter would often phone just before bedtime when she was exhausted, and the tears would flow. I contacted the house staff who suggested that they would get my daughter to call at morning break time or lunch time. We had less tears and more news of what she was doing.
Don’t let your child know that you are also upset. Children are very astute and will feed on your anxiety. When you do talk to them, ask them to tell you their news. Encourage them to have conversations via email, WhatsApp or letters with positive news about school events or things they have enjoyed. I always used to send my daughters cards which they loved receiving and now in their teens I still send them, and they still love getting them. Who doesn’t like to receive a lovely letter through the post!
Homesickness is tough on both the pupil and the parents. It is important not to show your frustration or even anger. Do not make escape clause deals such as “see how it goes until half-term” and do not reward bad emotional behaviour by giving-in to them. Once a child feels that there is a way out for them, they will not settle and will be determined to remain miserable. I know because my own daughter dug her heels in for two terms before settling and is now loving her boarding school. Let your child know their feelings are normal and valid, and you are there to support them. Sympathetic encouragement is the best way forward.
Schools will often have a buddy or mentor system in place for new arrivals. They are usually pupils from an older year group who have been homesick themselves, so are extremely sympathetic. They help settle and mentor new pupils, check in with them on a regular basis and share their own experiences of feeling homesick and critically how they coped. My own daughter found the buddy system hugely helpful and now, having fully settled, helps those who are experiencing homesickness.
Night-time is the hardest as for many children it will be their first time away from home. A favourite cuddly toy or a blanket from home can be so comforting as well as personalising their own space with photos of fun times. The matron at my daughter’s prep school, suggested I sprayed my daughter’s cuddly toy with my perfume to help with her homesickness. My daughter loved it and found it a huge comfort.
I send my daughters photos of things we had done in the holidays with family and friends. Both my daughters’ walls at their schools are covered in them and they love getting them in the post. This not only cheers them up but gives them something to talk about with their new friends.
Homesickness will pass. If managed well it will be consigned to a memory and both my girls now in their mid to late teens laugh about it. We often regale the story of when I telephoned my eldest daughter at her super prep school, Hanford, to speak to her, only to be told by a rather embarrassed matron, ‘I am so sorry, but Annabel has asked me to let you know that she doesn’t want to speak to you now, but says to tell you that she is having a lovely time.’
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