Receiving countless sobbing phone calls and miserable emails from your child when they have just started at boarding school for the first time is a heart wrenching experience for parents. The mobile phone call, text and email has made this particularly challenging to manage as a parent, since it makes contact with home so easy and available at times of sadness.
A few pointers below may be useful in terms of coping with this situation as a distressed parent and how best to see your child settled and happy at boarding school as soon as possible.
On the first drop off day, try not to hang around in the boarding house for too long before saying your goodbyes. Help your child to unpack and to make their space feel homely, ensure they have met up with someone else in their dorm to chat to and then, with as little fuss as possible, take your leave.
Listen to your child’s Housemaster or Housemistress and trust their experience and competence in supporting homesick children. If they are in regular communication with you to reassure you that there is no need for concern as they have the situation well in hand, then believe them. Houseparents take their responsibilities very seriously indeed and you can rest assured that if, in their experience, they felt there was a need for concern as your child was experiencing greater distress than is usual for a child who is away from home for the first time, they will immediately let you know and discuss with you how best to address the situation.
Children are kept very active and engaged during their first few weeks at boarding school. They will be taking part in a very busy programme of study and extra-curricular activity. It is only in the odd few moments of downtime that your child will start to feel sad and to miss home, since there really isn’t opportunity for this most of the time. Sadly, it is in these occasional miserable moments when your child will tend to phone, text or email you, leading you to believe that they are feeling sad and distressed all of the time.
Don’t give in to emotional blackmail. You have chosen to give your child an amazing opportunity to develop independence and experience a diverse range of opportunities within their education. They will make close friends that last a lifetime. You have made this choice for the right reasons so try not to take seriously any miserable communications from your child, which may imply that you do not care or are in some way cruel. Quite the opposite. You have made a self-less decision in giving your child what you believe to be an amazing opportunity. Your child will look back on their time when they are older and thank you for the decision you made, you just have to hang in there through the rough part at the beginning.
Never let your child know that you are upset too. If you can feel yourself welling up when talking to them on the phone, let them know quickly that you must hang up the phone as you have a pan boiling over, someone is at the door or something similar. If you are worried that this may happen try to communicate with your child by email when they cannot see that the happy cheerful messages from you are written through sobbing eyes!
Likewise try not to get cross and angry, rather provide a listening ear as to how your child is feeling. Getting cross may lead to your child thinking that you are not on their side in dealing with their homesickness. They must know that you are aware and understand the difficulties they are facing and that they have your full support in learning to cope.
Try not to contact your child too often during their first few weeks. Some boarding schools do not allow phone calls to and from home in the first few weeks, but even if the one your child attends does, try to resist the temptation to do this too often. You are bound to be worried about how they are settling in, worrying if they have made friends and what they are up to. Remember, if your child is happy and busy, it can be very unsettling and upsetting to suddenly take a call from home, reminding them that they are away from you for the first time. If you are worried or feeling out of the loop as you have not had any contact with your child for a while, get in touch with their Housemaster or Housemistress, who will happily update you on their progress in settling in. The school will call you if they are in any way concerned. Ask yourself are you contacting your child for your benefit as you are missing them, or for their benefit?
If you have family friends with an older child at the same school, try to seek discreet information via them as to your child’s welfare. It may reassure you to know there is an older student looking out for them. Hearing from another pupil that they experienced the same feelings of homesickness and got through it and are now happy, can sometimes be more convincing than hearing it from you. They may be able to share some gems of information as to how they coped. Children can often respond better to peers who are closer to the experience and who command respect.
Try to avoid discussions with your child over the phone about what you have been up to with their younger siblings who are still at home, as this only emphasises what they are missing out on in being away. Instead focus your conversations on asking your child what they have been doing, who are their teachers, what friends have they made, what sport and other activities have they been doing, and what are they looking forward to in the following week?
Set benchmarks of things for your child to look forward to so the first term can be divided into small chunks of time that is easier to cope with at the start. E.g. Give them a calendar for their wall and write on it the first time you can go to school to see them play in a sports match, the first exeat and the exciting things you have planned for them when they come home.
Never make a promise you have no intention of keeping, for example to take them away from the school if they are still unhappy at half term, Christmas etc. Once your child feels that there is a way out for them if they do not settle, they may dig their heels in and be determined to remain miserable until your deadline has passed so they can come home. Better to let them know that there is no alternative in terms of school option and that they need to try harder to settle in.
Praise and reward your child and let them know how proud you are of their efforts and achievements.
Most importantly of all, remember that you are not alone in dealing with your homesick child. Try to meet up with friends over a coffee and share your experiences and concerns. Knowing that you are not alone and what you and are child are going through has been faced and overcome before will be a great reassurance and support at what can be a very difficult and challenging time for any parent.