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Sunday, July 15, 2012 - Page updated at 05:30 a.m.
Parents compound homesickness with tech hovering
By PERRI KLASS, M.D
The New York Times
Odysseus got homesick.
In the first book of "The Odyssey," Homer's epic poem, the Greek hero is said to be "straining for no more than a glimpse of hearth-smoke drifting up from his own land." Thousands of years later, during the Civil War, homesickness (or "nostalgia") was viewed as an affliction that could kill soldiers.
Homesickness has always been with us, but nowadays we think of it as a lament of children separated from their parents by summer camp or other educational and recreational activities. Now that universal emotion is complicated by parents, enabled by modern technology and more inclined to hover, to call, to text, to be constantly in touch.
One of the lead authors of an American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on preventing homesickness noted that there are freshmen arriving at college who have never been away from their families. "Parents have been really good at protecting their kids, not letting them out of their sight," said Dr. Edward Walton, division director of pediatric emergency medicine at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.
According to the academy, the hallmark of serious, debilitating homesickness is preoccupying thoughts, "recurrent cognitions that are focused on home (e.g., house, loved ones, homeland, home cooking, returning home)."
Christopher Thurber, school psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and an author of the statement, has done extensive research on homesickness among children in settings including boarding schools, camps, colleges and hospitals. Three factors set up some children for more severe homesickness, he has found.
The first is simply temperamental: Some tend to have more trouble with any new situation. The second involves past experience. Younger children with practice being away from home often do better than older children away for the first time.
But the third inducement to homesickness may surprise parents: their own expressed anxiety over a separation. These are, as Thurber put it, "parents who express ambivalence — well-intentioned, loving parents who say, 'Have a wonderful time at camp, I don't know what I'll do without you.' "
By describing their own doubts, Thurber said, parents foster worries and preoccupying thoughts in children. Instead, acknowledge that people who love each other do miss each other when they're separated — but show confidence that it's possible to cope and enjoy the time apart.
I came across the research into homesickness while looking into the seasonal subject of summer camp, which drew my attention both as a pediatrician (and completer of camp forms) and a parent (and completer of camp forms). It's only fair to point out that homesickness is a very narrow lens for looking at camp, an experience rich with positive developmental effects.
I have never been a camp doctor, but friends and colleagues who have done the job speak of camp with affection. You see a lot of skin problems, they tell me: bug bites, poison ivy, scrapes and cuts and skin infections. You see viral infections, strep throat.
But some of the young patients at the infirmary are really pining for home. Vague pains of one kind or another, or disproportionate worry about a bug bite, can be the first signs.
In addition to a range of physical complaints, homesickness can show up as anger or disorientation. Camp workers need to recognize and "normalize" homesickness, to explain that everyone experiences it.
"Brief, supportive conversations are better than really long therapeutic conversations," Thurber said. The staff member provides empathy and offers coping strategies (write a letter home, join an activity), and then a promise to follow up.
So what should parents do to help prepare their children?
Talk about homesickness and how to handle it with your child before a separation. Practice separations — weekends with grandparents, for instance, during which you call or text only sparingly. The experience can help children prepare for something longer and can help parents judge whether the time is right for a first trip to camp.
Above all, experts say, don't make a "pickup deal." Never promise your child that if camp doesn't go well, you'll be there for an early retrieval.
"People make that mistake all the time," Walton said. "Every kid is going to ask, 'What if I feel homesick?' With a pickup deal, the subtext is, 'I have so little confidence in your ability to cope with this normal feeling.' "
Pickup deals leave parents with only two options, both of them unfortunate. If you show up, the child loses the opportunity to enjoy camp and the opportunity to learn how to cope with separation. If you don't, you go back on your word.
If a child presses you, he continued, offer to discuss ways the child will cope with being away. And it might be a good idea to come up with a few coping strategies of your own.
"A lot of times when we talk about homesickness, we talk about kidsickness," Walton said. "That's when the parents have just as hard a time releasing the children."
Well, yes. My youngest child is off being an assistant counselor right now. And maybe I suddenly relish the thought of becoming a camp doctor as a way of thinking myself closer.
"We never stop missing people we love," Thurber said.
Parents and children can learn to understand homesickness as a reflection of that love.
Copyright © The Seattle Times Company
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