Homesickness is an ache that is hard to soothe. Obviously, it is a longing for people and home, but it’s also a feeling of disconnection. All your rituals and routines are gone, the people who know how you feel without you having to tell them are gone. It’s a feeling I understand very well. In the 80s I was at boarding school for five years and frankly, I struggled.
Going to boarding school was a necessity of circumstance. It granted me access to opportunities I would never have had otherwise. It also changed my perception of what was possible for me in life. However, boarding schools at that time were harsher places than they are now, and we didn’t have the communication technology that boarders now have at their fingertips.
Even with all the obvious changes, when choosing to send a child to boarding school, one of the most pressing concerns is homesickness. That stretching of emotional bonds is understandably worrying for both parents and their children. ‘Will our child be homesick? How will they cope? How will we cope with missing our child?’
These very human fears need to be explored and understood. We can’t just pretend they aren’t there. The ideal person to talk to about homesickness is Tracy Webster, Head of Boarding at Santa Maria College.
Tracy has an incredible range of skills acquired over the course of her long career in girls’ education. She has held an array of leadership roles in both academic and pastoral care, in a wide variety of schools. She is a compassionate and empathetic educator and the girls in her care thrive.
What do you love about Boarding?
TW: A student asked me if I miss teaching now that I am in Boarding, and no, I don’t. The reason I teach is because I love being with adolescents. In Boarding, I can spend time with them and soak up their energy. They make me laugh and I love every minute of it.
Is there a normal amount of homesickness?
TW: There are no norms in homesickness. Some girls appear vulnerable and you expect them to be terribly homesick and they’re not. Other girls you think are confident and raring to go, and they crumble.
From my experience, the length of time it lasts varies as well. Some have an explosion of homesickness all at once and then they’re fine the next day, whereas others will have a little bit all the time. I had one Year 12 girl who told me she was a little bit homesick for her whole six years.
A 2015 study found that 38 % of boarders never experience homesickness at all. That can be confronting for a parent, but it doesn’t mean they don’t love their parents and their home. Adolescents are all different and they respond to boarding differently.
Sometimes girls will say they are homesick but it’s really their way of saying something else is wrong. There might be a friendship problem or a difficulty with schoolwork; normal adolescent struggles. They are young and their emotional intelligence is still developing so they find it difficult to decipher all that, so they say they are homesick. We need to listen and figure that out.
What do the girls miss?
TW: Sometimes they can’t articulate what they miss, it’s just a feeling. Many miss mum and dad and the security they offer, but that is expected, and so doesn’t take them by surprise. They can also Facetime or talk to their parents often so that connection remains strong.
What they don’t expect to miss are things like being at home in their space, in their bed, in their own bedroom. They miss their siblings and their pets and their routines; like helping dad with seeding or local footy matches, but mostly it’s that space… home.
How does the College help girls deal with homesickness?
TW: We work with girls on a needs basis as it is a very individual experience, so different girls need different support. There are some steps we take from the very beginning to help them feel connected to others in our community. For example, for the first few nights, the Year 12s put the Year 7s to bed, see how they’re going and help them settle. We sometimes pair the Year 7s with an older girl as a mentor. It’s nice to see that throughout the year the support ends up going both ways.
We try to provide a rich program for the girls to be a part of on the weekends so they are busy, and their homesickness can be in the background. Plus, I always have a cake mix and games in the cupboard to give them something to do or we give them jobs or send them on a walk. We make a point of recognising their individuality and ensuring they are involved in activities that they find interesting and that make them feel valued.
What can parents do to support their child with homesickness?
TW: Parents often suffer more than their daughters. They experience grief and loss, as they are left at home with an empty seat at the kitchen table and a massive gap in their routines and hearts. They don’t necessarily have support in that. Whereas, the girls are surrounded by new experiences and friends and adults who are specifically there to watch over them and make sure they are coping.
Parents need to be able to manage their own ‘child sickness’ rather than transferring it on to their child. Of course, all boarders need to know they are loved and missed, but they can’t be responsible for their parents’ feelings.
Well-timed, regular contact with parents is important. It also helps to be mindful of good times to call. For example, just before bed isn’t a great time to call because that’s when girls feel tired and a bit vulnerable. A text instead at bedtime is perfect, it lets them know they are being missed.
TW: Regular calls at about the same time of day works well. After dinner or after study are good times as they can do a revue of the day. I also encourage parents to ask questions other than, “Are you okay?” or “Are you homesick?” I sometimes give parents a list of questions.
We do discourage girls from being on the phone to their parents too much because they miss out on invitations to do things that build bonds with their buddies. We don’t want them to end up being in their room alone.
Do the girls support each other?
TW: Absolutely. They know each other so well that they know what to look out for. They are also good at alerting me, or other staff, if someone has been in their room a lot or doesn’t seem to be doing well. Boarders have great empathy from a young age. If someone is upset, they gather them in and involve them. It’s beautiful to see. You see the boarders support the day students with empathy too.
Is there a point where boarding is not appropriate for a child because of homesickness?
TW: I’ve not experienced that. I think there is a point where boarding is not appropriate for other reasons and homesickness is a symptom of that. Boarding isn’t for everyone and we are honest about that and work in a positive way with those families.
Is there a role for the families of day students in supporting boarders?
TW: Sometimes girls really need a little break from boarding. If their parents live too far away, it is a great opportunity for parents of day students to take them out.
Boarders’ parents feel self-conscious about asking Perth families to help out, so we’re really promoting the idea that it is okay to ask for help. I’m certain most families would love to take a boarder out for the weekend, so maybe it needs to go both ways; boarders’ parents need to ask, and day students’ parents need to offer.
I was a day student when I was at school and my family used to always take boarders out. It was reciprocated with visits to the boarders’ homes. I got to hang out on farms and learn about their lives. I learnt to drive tractors and utes and I did all the things boarders did. I loved it!
Homesickness is very human, like all emotions. It is good to see that modern boarding schools approach it in an empathetic manner and help boarders and their families acknowledge and accept it. In this regard, the good old days have definitely been improved upon.
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