Surviving sending your child to boarding school

A parent’s guide

The academic year has started once again but there will be many pupils around the country experiencing terrible homesickness, and any number of parents worrying themselves sick about their offspring.

Homesickness is a strange thing because it doesn’t always strike when you expect. Some pupils find they are so excited by their new school and their surroundings and by meeting new people that they don’t start feeling homesick until quite some time after the beginning of term – perhaps even after a term or two. The novelty of an exciting new school, sports and activities has worn off, schoolwork has become more difficult, exams are looming, and children suddenly realize that they miss their home and family.

 

And it’s not just the children. Often parents are surprised at how tearful, moody, lonely and depressed they feel, creating anxiety that their children must be feeling even worse – though in reality, the kids are probably fine! Both parents and children should be reassured that that a degree of homesickness is quite normal – after all, it shows you love and miss your family – but it shouldn’t last forever.

 

A few tips for parents

  • Is your child ready to board? Make sure your child is boarding school ready. Sending a child to boarding school is an expensive undertaking, done to give both you and your child the best start in life. It is not a prison sentence or punishment, and if the child perceives it as such, or is reluctant to board, the homesickness will be far worse. Make sure your child sees the experience as a privilege, not a punishment – but not to the extent that they feel guilt-ridden if they do become unhappy.
  • Positive preparation. When you are preparing to go for school, buying uniform, packing etc, make sure it is all done with a positive attitude.
  • Be realistic. Encourage your child to be realistic in his or her expectations. Don’t let them believe that it will all be a bed of roses; remind him or her that there will be ups and down, but that this will be true of any school, day or boarding.
  • Control your emotions. Don’t cry or show how upset you are in front of your child. If they are feeling anxious and depressed about going away, worrying about Mum and Dad will only make them feel worse.
  • Phone in the right frame of mind. Don’t phone or message your child when you are feeling down. Negative emotions are contagious and, whilst you don’t want your children to feel you are thankful to see the back of them, focus on the opportunities opening up to them. Try to stage your phone calls: responding to the first onset of homesickness with a phone call won’t help your child deal with what are, after all, very natural feelings.
  • Keep the conversation going. Make sure you have a list of questions to ask children to avoid any awkward silences in which they might focus on what is making them unhappy, rather than the new and exciting things they are experiencing.
  • Still part of the family. Make sure your child still feels one of the family, and not like he or she’s been ‘packed off to boarding school’, by keeping them updated with life at home through messages, pictures etc. Doing this will also provide things to share with their friends – of which, hopefully, there will be many.
  • Watch the weather. Try not to phone on a grey miserable day. We all feel better and more positive when the sun is shining.
  • Work with the school. Boarding schools are hugely experienced at dealing with homesick children and have policies to deal with it. Some have a policy of children having no phone contact with parents for several weeks because they find that most children are not concerned and the few that are feeling down will have their homesickness triggered by contact with the family. But if more frequent contact is allowed, bear in mind the tips above.
  • Get a pet. If the loneliness for you as a parent gets too much, get a pet!

If you are still worried …

In the past, both schools and parents tended to have a ‘they’ll get over it’ attitude, and in most cases, this is true, but in a very small number of cases, homesickness does not go away, and it might be an indication that there is something more serious going on. Perhaps the child is being bullied, or perhaps there is an underlying mental health issue, such as depression. However, these circumstances are extremely rare and schools are now much more aware of such possibilities. Don’t be afraid to share your fears with the school because if you are concerned, they will almost certainly have noticed something themselves and will want to help.

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