Letter to a homesick teenager

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Ask an Expert Week, 25-29 November 2013

How to help a homesick child

Photo Credit: Matt McGee via Compfight cc

By Rachel Hynes.

My eldest daughter, aged 15, is one week into a 10 week student exchange to France. The homesickness and culture shock has hit hard. It is so heartwrenching being on the other side of the world, trying to comfort your very sad child.

I asked an old school friend if she would write my daughter a letter, sharing her experiences of homesickness as an exchange student 25 years ago. Her letter was so full of wisdom and advice, I thought I would share it here in case you one day find yourself with a homesick teenager.

Letter to a homesick teen

Hi D!

Your mum has told me how you’re having a tough time right now, and I thought my experience as an exchange student – especially dealing with homesickness – may help you a little.

I went to Norway as a Rotary international exchange student for a year when I was 18 (that was a loooooong time ago). I actually chose to go to Norway because it was the country the furthest away from Australia where they didn’t speak English. I was determined to go the full kit and caboodle while I had the chance.

Of course, this excitement to go to a non-English speaking country soon bit me well and truly in the arse, as I found that it was the worst part of being there. I felt so incredibly isolated. School was pretty boring (mostly) and parties were dull. Luckily for me, most younger people in Norway speak okay-ish English as they learn it at school. One-on-one with someone was good – they’d try their English out on me and we’d have a few laughs – but in a group situation it was terrible. Everyone spoke Norwegian and I felt lost and alone.

I also had terrible culture shock. Norway is a lovely, quaint country. Everything is as snug as a bug. Gingerbread houses, that kind of thing. And back in 1989, there was no immigration to speak of. It felt odd and insular. These people looked liked extras from that movie “Children of the Corn”!

Coming from a tiny outback NSW country town meant I felt like I’d been dumped on a different planet. I actually felt like a lumbering oaf! lol! The culture shock took a while to get used to, but I did get used to it. I slowly picked up Norwegian (I hadn’t learned any before I’d left Oz) and gradually found my groove.

The key, I think (and this will seem impossibly difficult right now) is to try to enjoy every experience in some way. Try to find pleasure in the little things, and don’t look too far ahead into the future. Ten weeks must feel like an eternity to you right now, but it will whizz by like you won’t believe. My year was over before I knew it, and in that year I met some amazing people. People I’m extremely close to now, 24 years later. I’m also married to a Norwegian guy I met while I was there! You won’t realise now, but you’ll meet people on this trip that will make a big impression or difference to your life and you’re really quite a lucky duck to have this opportunity.

We didn’t have email or Internet when I was in Norway – I had to hang out by the mailbox hoping someone had written a letter or sent a card. As the days went by, I lost interest in waiting for the mailman. I knew I’d be going home at the end of my year and I guess I made an unconscious decision that I’d immerse myself in it and try to get as much out of it as possible. I probably spoke to my parents on the phone (and it was a crappy, expensive phone line back in those days) about 2-3 times that whole year. Being away from my family made me realise how lucky I was to have such a wonderful support network back home. It made me appreciate them more.

When you’re feeling really crap, don’t beat yourself up about it. Be kind to yourself. It’s totally normal to feel homesick. I feel homesick even now (I’ve been living in America for the past 3.5 years). Sometimes I visualise (and you can laugh at me if you want to, because it’s kinda daggy) a tiny version of myself sitting on my shoulder. Sometimes I’d picture my mum sitting up there too. When I was crying and feeling absolute shit (excuse the French- but hey, I guess you’re in France!) I’d picture my tiny sensible self or my tiny sensible mum sitting on my shoulder and poking me in the side of the head saying “C’mon! I want you to enjoy this time. You deserve to enjoy this time! It’s going to be ok,” stuff like that. You need to remember too, that wherever you go your parents are there with you. Literally. They are part of you. Probably sounds mad, but it worked for me. It actually still works for me even now I’m 43.

Living in the US has had it’s tough times too. I’ve been back to visit my family twice since we’ve been here and when I spend time with them, it seems like no time has passed at all. They still drive me nuts and I wonder why the hell I missed them to begin with!!

What you should try not to do is isolate yourself. Don’t hide in your room. Throw yourself out there. Insist that people talk with you. Insist people show you around the sights etc. Don’t be shy about asking people to help you. I remember panicking about what to do with my dirty washing at my first host family’s house. I’d been there about 10 days and no one had explained the laundry procedures. Meanwhile my pile of dirty knickers was building up in the cupboard. In the end, I had to just ask about it. It was an enormous relief to have clean undies hahaahahhahha! Just ask, ask and ask some more. Not knowing what’s going on, or what the normal procedures are can cause a lot more stress than you realise and it’s just unnecessary. I hope I’ve been able to give some small kernel of comfort to you. Just know that you’re not alone in how you feel. So many others have been there and done that. This experience will teach you so much. I look back now and I feel so lucky that I did my year overseas.

Big hugs!!

Julie

Have you ever had a homesick child? What did you do to help?
Do you remember a time when you were homesick? How did you get through it?
All advice gratefully received.

 

Comments

  1. It’s a big deal, culture shock. And no matter how good your language skills, they’re never good enough – you can’t make the same jokes or comprehend at the same speed. It’s just exhausting. But what a wonderful experience if she can push through it. Good luck.
    Lydia C. Lee recently posted..Confidence – women in the mediaMy Profile

    • Thanks Lydia, yes it IS exhausting, and even though she was well warned, I think it still surprised her. Things have definitely improved her though.

  2. Katherine says:

    This is such a lovely letter, and so gut wrenching too. Thinking of you and your daughter. I remember feeling really homesick when I left home at 20 and went to uni! I bet in two weeks she will be having the time of her life, but still hard while you are in it.

  3. Oh the poor little thing. Being homesick is awful…but that letter was fantastic! Bless your friend! She is right – the 10 weeks will be over before she knows it. Best she tries to absorb the experience, soak it in, take heaps of photo’s, enjoy meeting new people and experiencing a different culture and foods. Before she knows it, she’ll be back home again and the trip to France will be but a distant memory. So hard for you Rach – knowing your girl is feeling sad. I hope she cheers up real soon. Min xo
    Min@MinsMash recently posted..Yesterday was not such a good day!My Profile

    • It’s really hard when they are sad and you’re limited in what you can do, but it’s good training for both of us for a few years time!

  4. Great idea to share that letter- it is fantastic. I don’t have a homesick kid, my eldest only turns 14 next week. But when I was 13 my mum sent me overseas for two months to live with her brother, his wife and their youngest boy who was still at home. My two grown girl cousins were off working and I was so bored and sad and ate so much food, my brother admitted to me later he didn’t recognise me at the airport. The absolutely brilliant thing about being overseas these days is that we have online communication available to us, email, FB, Instagram, Skype… all accessible and affordable. Not like the good old days when you had to wait a fortnight for snail mail or only got to talk to your folks a few minutes a week because it was so BLOODY EXPENSIVE.
    Twitchy recently posted..It’s Movember and I Have Some Great IdeasMy Profile

    • The easy online access is a blessing and a curse, but I know I’d rather have it. I feel sorry for 13-year-old you – that is a tough ask.

  5. Oh that must be terribly hard to cope with. I had home sickness when I was 12/13 at boarding school and I suppose it’s hearing that they are okay which made it easier for me. I suppose if I knew they were desperately sad for me too it would have made it worse, does that make sense! How exciting to be part of a cultural exchange, I wish I had done that!
    Emily @ Have A Laugh On Me recently posted..I have a dirty little secret – be warned neat freaks it ain’t pretty!My Profile

  6. What a brilliant letter, I think your friend has packaged it up in such a wonderful way that any homesick teenager could relate to. Although moving to a non English speaking country is not something I am familiar with. I am very familiar with homesickness, it is an awful feeling, I literally felt sick and every night I would dream of home. I moved to Australia from Ireland. I was homesick for 4 years, my mum used to hate calling me up as she was never sure if I would be in tears or not. Really the only way to get through it is with other people, putting yourself out there and making friends. This is a hard thing to do especially when your confidence has been knocked however it is so worth it, even if she could become close with one person a whole new world could be open up to her. Skype really helps me with my homesickness, however she also does not want to be obsessing over the next internet contact all day. Remind her why she wanted to go on exchange in the first place. I really hope your daughters time in France improves, it is normal to be so homesick ( I still get really homesick and I am a grown woman) she just has to not let it rule this fabulous experience.
    Sarah@SnippetsandSpirits recently posted..The Shiny Red BicycleMy Profile

    • Thank you for your advice. Yes, adults can still get homesick. As wonderful as travel is, there is nothing like family and the comforts and familiarity of home.

  7. Hi D
    I didn’t travel overseas when I was young and I’m sorry that I didn’t grab the opportunity when it was available to me. I have watched Julie and another friend from school gain so much from these experiences. Like so many experiences in the adolescent years these will become some of your most treasured memories in years to come. Go out and do as much as you can and take lots of photos so you can look back on the memories in years to come. Your home and family will always be there but this opportunity may only come once. Stay busy and keep smiling (forcing a smile can actually make you feel happier).
    Shayne

    • I’m like you Shayne, I put off travel till much later and it is a regret of mine. Fortunately I think we’ve come through the worst of the homesickness and I am hoping she will do everything you’ve suggested in your comment. xx

  8. Oh this has brought back so, so many memories… I went to work in Italy as an au pair when I was 18 and it was such a shock to the system. I used to wait desperately for the mail to be delievered. 15 is so young to be so far away as well, Australia IS a long way away. Your daughter gets such great advice in this letter, well worth sharing and remembering by us mums whose kids will go away in the future.

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