Summer camps for children are often associated with homesickness, particularly for children who are away from their parents for the first time.

Homesickness is the distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home.[1] Its cognitive hallmark is preoccupying thoughts of home and attachment objects.[2] Sufferers typically report a combination of depressive and anxious symptoms, withdrawn behavior and difficulty focusing on topics unrelated to home.[3][4][5]

In its mild form, homesickness prompts the development of coping skills and motivates healthy attachment behaviors, such as renewing contact with loved ones.[6] Indeed, nearly all people miss something about home when they are away, making homesickness a nearly universal experience.[7] However, intense homesickness can be painful and debilitating.[8][9]

Fortunately, prevention and treatment strategies exist for both children and adults. There are protective factors which can help people to cope with homesickness. Youth-serving organizations, such as the American Camp Association, have developed a homesickness prevention program. One study showed that this inexpensive intervention can lower the intensity of homesickness of first-year campers by an average 50%.[10]

Historical references

Homesickness is an ancient phenomenon, mentioned in both the Old Testament books of Exodus and Psalm 137:1 ("By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion") as well as Homer's Odyssey, whose opening scene features Athena arguing with Zeus to bring Odysseus home because he is homesick ("...longing for his wife and his homecoming..."). The Greek physician Hippocrates (ca. 460–377 BC) believed that homesickness—also called "heimveh" (old German word for "Heimweh") or a "nostalgic reaction"—was caused by a surfeit of black bile in the blood.[11] In recent history homesickness is first mentioned specifically with Swiss people being abroad in Europe ("Heimweh") for a longer period of time in a document dating back to 1691.[12] A normal phenomenon amongst the many common Swiss mercenaries serving in different countries and many rulers across Europe at that time. It was not uncommon for them staying many years away from home and, if lucky enough, return home if still alive. This phenomenon at that time was first only thought to affect Swiss people until this was revised, probably caused by big migration streams across Europe suggesting the same symptoms and thus homesickness found its way into general German medical literature in the 19th century. American contemporary histories, such as Susan J. Matt's Homesickness: An American History eloquently describe experiences of homesickness in colonists, immigrants, gold miners, soldiers, explorers and others spending time away from home. First understood as a brain lesion, homesickness is now known to be a form of normative psychopathology that reflects the strength of a person's attachment to home, native culture and loved ones, as well as their ability to regulate their emotions and adjust to novelty. Cross-cultural research, with populations as diverse as refugees and boarding school students, suggests considerable agreement on the definition of homesickness.[13] Additional historical perspectives on homesickness and place attachment can be found in books by van Tilburg & Vingerhoets,[13] Matt,[14] and Williams.[15]

Diagnosis and epidemiology

Whereas separation anxiety disorder is characterized by "inappropriate and excessive fear or anxiety concerning separation from those to whom the individual is attached" [16] symptoms of homesickness are most prominent after a separation and include both depression and anxiety. In DSM terms, homesickness may be related to Separation Anxiety Disorder, but it is perhaps best categorized as either an Adjustment Disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood (309.28) or, for immigrants and foreign students as a V62.4, Acculturation Difficulty. As noted above, researchers use the following definition: "Homesickness is the distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home. Its cognitive hallmark is preoccupying thoughts of home and attachment objects." Recent pathogenic models support the possibility that homesickness reflects both insecure attachment and a variety of emotional and cognitive vulnerabilities, such as little previous experience away from home and negative attitudes about the novel environment.

The prevalence of homesickness varies greatly, depending on the population studied and the way homesickness is measured.[17] One way to conceptualize homesickness prevalence is as a function of severity. Nearly all people miss something about home when they are away, so the absolute prevalence of homesickness is close to 100%, mostly in a mild form. Roughly 20% of university students and children at summer camp rate themselves at or above the midpoint on numerical rating scales of homesickness severity. And only 5–7% of students and campers report intense homesickness associated with severe symptoms of anxiety and depression. However, in adverse or painful environments, such as the hospital or the battlefield, intense homesickness is far more prevalent. In one study,[18] 50% of children scored themselves at or above the midpoint on a numerical homesickness intensity scale (compared to 20% of children at summer camp). Soldiers report even more intense homesickness, sometimes to the point of suicidal misery. Naturally, aversive environmental elements, such as the trauma associated with war, exacerbate homesickness and other mental health problems.

In sum, homesickness is a normative pathology that can take on clinical relevance in its moderate and severe forms.

Risk and protective factors

Newly enlisted soldiers sometimes experience homesickness when they are staying in an army boot camp.

Risk factors (constructs which increase the likelihood or intensity of homesickness) and protective factors (constructs that decrease the likelihood or intensity of homesickness) vary by population. For example, a seafarers on board, the environmental stressors associated with a hospital, a military boot camp or a foreign country may exacerbate homesickness and complicate treatment. Generally speaking, however, risk and protective factors transcend age and environment.

Risk factors

The risk factors for homesickness fall into five categories: experience, personality, family, attitude and environment.[2] More is known about some of these factors in adults—especially personality factors—because more homesickness research has been performed with older populations.[19] However, a growing body of research is elucidating the etiology of homesickness in younger populations, including children at summer camp,[3][4] hospitalized children[18] and students.[8]

Finally, research has provided no support for a few factors that conventional wisdom had once held to be risk factors. These include: recent separation or divorce of primary caregivers; geographic distance from home; or recent geographic move. Most likely, it is not a change in family structure, distance or dwelling that predicts homesickness, but whether these changes have left unanswered (potentially preoccupying) questions in the person's mind.

Protective factors

Factors which mitigate the prevalence or intensity of homesickness are essentially the inverse of the risk factors cited above. Effective coping (reviewed in the following section) also diminishes the intensity of homesickness over time. Prior to a separation, however, key protective factors can be identified. Positive adjustment to separation from home is generally associated with the following factors:

Theories of coping

How people—especially young people—cope with homesickness deserves careful study for at least three reasons. First, homesickness is experienced by millions of people who spend time away from home (see McCann, 1941, for an early review[20]) including children at boarding schools,[21] residential summer camps[17] and hospitals.[22]

Second, severe homesickness is associated with significant distress and impairment. There is evidence that homesick persons present with non-traumatic physical ailments significantly more than their non-homesick peers.[23] Homesick boys and girls complain about somatic problems and exhibit more internalizing and externalizing behaviors problems than their nonhomesick peers. First-year college students are three times more likely to drop out of school than their nonhomesick peers.[24] Other data have pointed to concentration and academic problems in homesick students. And maladjustment to separation from home has been documented in hospitalized young people and is generally associated with slower recovery. See Thurber & Walton (2012) for a review.

Third, learning more about how people cope with homesickness is a helpful guide to designing treatment programs. By complementing existing theories of depression, anxiety and attachment, a better theoretical understanding of homesickness can shape applied interventions. Among the most relevant theories that could shape interventions are those concerned with Learned Helplessness[25] and Control Beliefs.[26]

Learned helplessness predicts that persons who develop a belief that they cannot influence or adjust to their circumstance of separation from home will become depressed and make fewer attempts to change that circumstance. Control beliefs theory predicts that negative affect is most likely in persons who perceive personal incompetence in the separation environment (e.g., poor social skills at a summer camp or university) and who perceive contingency uncertainty (e.g., uncertainty about whether friendly behavior will garner friends). Although these are not the only broad etiologic theories that inform homesickness, note that both theories hinge on control, the perception of which "reflects the fundamental human need for competence" (Skinner, 1995, p. 8). This is particularly relevant to coping, because people's choice of how to respond to a stressor hinges partly on their perception of a stressor's controllability.

An equally important coping factor is social connection, which for many people is the antidote to homesickness. As the results of several studies have suggested, social connection is a powerful mediator of homesickness intensity.[27][28]

Ways of coping

The most effective way of coping with homesickness is mixed and layered. Mixed coping is that which involves both primary goals (changing circumstances) and secondary goals (adjusting to circumstances). Layered coping is that which involves more than one method. This kind of sophisticated coping is learned through experience, such as brief periods away from home without parents. As an example of mixed and layered coping, one study[29] revealed the following method-goal combinations to be the most frequent and effective ways boys and girls:

Sometimes, people will engage in wishful thinking, attempt to arrange a shorter stay or (rarely) break rules or act violently in order to be sent home. These ways of coping are rarely effective and can produce unintended negative side effects.

Popular culture

Homesickness is a major theme of the film Brooklyn (2015). One critic said that the protagonist's depiction of homesickness "as a physical, implacable reality is acute, and it's backed up by what we see around her."[30]

Ness, the main character of the video game EarthBound suffers homesickness when he does not contact his mother for a long time. The depiction of homesickness in EarthBound is described as follows: "Anybody who is on a long trip will miss home. In this case, the best thing to do is to call home and hear your mom’s voice."

See also


  1. Kerns, Brumariu, Abraham. Kathryn A., Laura E., Michelle M.(2009/04/13). Homesickness at summer camp. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 54.
  2. 1 2 Thurber, C.A. & Walton, E.A. (2007). Preventing and treating homesickness. Pediatrics, 119, 843–858.
  3. 1 2 Thurber, C.A., Sigman, M.D., Weisz, J.R., & Schmidt, C.K. (1999). Homesickness in preadolescent and adolescent girls: Risk factors, behavioral correlates, and sequelae. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 28, 185–196.
  4. 1 2 Thurber, C.A. (1999). The phenomenology of homesickness in boys. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 27, 125–139.
  5. Fisher, S. (1989). Homesickness, Cognition, and Health. Hove, UK: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  6. Thurber, C.A. & Weisz, J.R. (1997). "You Can Try or You Can Just Give Up": The impact of perceived control and coping style on childhood homesickness. Developmental Psychology, 33, 508–517.
  7. van Tilburg, M.A.L. & Vingerhoets, A. (Eds.) (1997). Acculturation stress and homesickness. Tilburg, The Netherlands: Tilburg University Press.
  8. 1 2 Thurber, C.A. & Walton, E.A. (2012). Homesickness and adjustment in university students. Journal of American College Health, 60, 1–5.
  9. Fisher, S. & Hood, B. (1987). The stress of the transition to university: A longitudinal study of psychological disturbance, absent-mindedness and vulnerability to homesickness. British Journal of Psychology, 78, 425–441.
  10. Thurber, C.A. (2005). Multimodal homesickness prevention in boys spending 2 weeks at a residential summer camp. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73, 555–560.
  11. Zwingmann, C. (1959). "Heimveh" or "nostalgic reaction": A conceptual analysis and interpretation of a medico-psychological phenomenon [dissertation]. Stanford (CA): Stanford University.
  12. Schweizerisches Idiotikon Bd. XV Sp. 42 f., Artikel Heimwē
  13. 1 2 van Tilburg, M.A.A. & Vingerhoets, A. (Eds.). (1997). Acculturation Stress and Homesickness. Tilburg, The Netherlands. Tilburg University Press.
  14. Matt, S.J. (2011). Homesickness: An American History. USA: Oxford University Press.
  15. Williams, A. (Ed.). (1999). Therapeutic Landscapes: The Dynamic Between Place and Wellness. New York: University Press of America.
  16. American Psychiatric Association. "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders." 5th ed. Washington, DC: Author: 2013
  17. 1 2 Thurber, C.A. (1995). The experience and expression of homesickness in preadolescent and adolescent boys. "Child Development, 66", 1162–1178.
  18. 1 2 Thurber, C.A., Patterson, D., & Mount, K.K. (2007). Homesickness and children's adjustment to hospitalization: Toward a preliminary model. "Children's Healthcare, 36", 1–28.
  19. Verschuur, M.J., Eurelings-Bontekoe, E.H.M., Spinhoven, P., & Duijsens, I.J. (2003). Homesickness, temperament and character. "Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, 35", 757–770.
  20. McCann, W.H. (1941). Nostalgia: A review of the literature. "Psychological Bulletin, 38", 165–182.
  21. Fisher, S., Elder, L., & Peacock, G. (1990). Homesickness in a school in the Australian Bush. "Children's Environments Quarterly, 7", 15–22.
  22. Mitchell, J.V. Recreational therapy program alleviates homesickness. "Hospital Topics, 44", 97–98.
  23. Fisher, S., Frazer, N., & Murray., K. (1986). Homesickness and health in boarding school children. "Journal of Environmental Psychology, 6", 35–47.
  24. Burt, C. (1993). Concentration and academic ability following the transition to university: An investigation of the effects of homesickness. "Journal of Environmental Psychology, 13", 333–342.
  25. Abramson, L.Y., Seligman, M.E.P., & Teasdale, J.D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformation. "Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87", 49–74.
  26. Weisz, J.R., (1990). Development of control-related beliefs, goals, and styles in childhood and adolescence: A clinical perspective. In K.W. Schaie, J. Rodin, & C. Scholler (Eds.), "Self-directedness and efficacy: Causes and effects throughout the life course (pp. 103–145). New York: Erlbaum.
  27. Hendrickson, B., Rosen, D., & Aune, R.K., (2010). An analysis of friendship networks, social connectedness, homesickness and satisfaction levels of international students. "International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 35", 281–295.
  28. Kerns, K.A., Brumariu., L.E., & Abraham, M.M., (2008). Homesickness at summer camp: associations with the mother-child relationship, social self-concept, and peer relationships in middle childhood. "Journal of Developmental Psychology, 54", 473–498.
  29. Thurber, C.A. & Weisz, J.R., (1997). "You can try or you can just give up": The impact of perceived control and coping style on childhood homesickness." Developmental Psychology, 33, 508–517.
  30. Byrnes, Paul (13 February 2016). "Brooklyn: An Irish twist on the agonies and ecstasy of a migrant's story". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 20 February 2016.

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