Emotionally Supporting Your Boarding School Student

October 1, 2013

By Bonnie Raskin

Bonnie is the Caroline D. Bradley Scholarship Program Coordinator at IEA. She has extensive experience working with gifted middle school students to find the high school that best fits their individual intellectual and personal needs and supporting them throughout that high school experience.

This time every year, I’m approached by parents of Caroline D. Bradley Scholars who have just dropped off their sons and daughters at boarding school for the first time and ask about how to support their students during the transition to life away from home.

It’s true that your child is stepping into a world that is like that of a college freshman in some respects: he or she faces issues of time management, from preparing for exams to doing laundry; issues of relationships, from accommodating a roommate with different sleep habits to learning to speak with instructors; and issues of personal development, from coping with homesickness to frustration over weekend curfews that differ from home. While college students are more or less viewed as adults, this is not appropriate for your 14 year old. This is why boarding schools have tiers of responsible adult faculty and upper level students on site in every dorm for immediate access to all of the students housed with them, regular group and individual chats, and strict rules students quickly adopt as their “new normal.”

Going off to boarding school is what professionals call a “planned separation.” Homesickness is bound to be something your new boarder is going to deal with. If this comes up, reassure your child that those feelings of missing familiar surroundings, routine, family and friends are perfectly normal. The experience of going away to school has a certain rhythm: initial excitement or positive intensity, usually lasting the first two to four weeks, then a drop to what might be labeled homesickness. It is a natural phenomenon; it is inevitable and does not last. So parents—DON’T ask about it, just know that if the communication turns a little sad or wistful in late September or mid-October, that’s probably the cause. It’s your part of the dialogue to steer the conversation to positive topics. CDB boarding school alums advise that parents should NEVER ask, “Are you homesick?” because “if I wasn’t homesick, that question would make me be and if I were, it wouldn’t make me feel any better.”

The late-night phone call is a universal topic of conversation among boarding parents—whether it’s about pre-exam anxiety, an upcoming team tryout or “no way I’m going to finish my paper on time.” This is not an uncommon scenario, especially during the first semester, and it can be hard for a parent to maintain composure and to say something you view as helpful. It’s not uncommon for parents to lose sleep after such a phone call, only to discover the next day that their son or daughter managed fine and scarcely remembers being anxious at all. Often when troubles become too much for a new student to handle (a bad grade on a test, an ended relationship, a shrunken t-shirt), the familiar place to turn is to YOU. Regrettably, new students are more likely to call about “desperate” circumstances, so you may never hear about the A paper, the great campus activity, or your son’s little-known domestic triumph. In times of crisis, your student can unload troubles or tears and, after the catharsis, return to a routine, relieved and lightened, while you inherit the burden or worry. Be patient and be a LISTENER when these calls come in. Be sympathetic, but more importantly, support your child by expressing confidence in his or her ability to solve the problem on his or her own. You know how resourceful and empowered your child is, but he or she might need to hear it. Remember that advice often sounds to adolescents like criticism, so instead of suggesting ways to handle the problem, listen for the tone of voice that indicates your child is ready to have you ask, “What do you think you can do at this point?” Understand the point of the call more often than not is to hand the worry over to someone else, to have an audience for the woes—NOT to get a solution.

Here are a few tips that I’ve picked up along the way from CDB parents, educators and Scholars themselves:

1. Don’t allow your child to call you constantly. You also have to resist the temptation of calling your son or daughter every hour. This is TOUGH for a parent to do. Establish a regular time for a 15 minute chat and stick to it. During your call, ask specific questions based on information you have already gleaned from the student newspaper, the school’s website or previous conversations–NOT “Did you finish your English paper on time?” or “How’d you do on your biology test?” Your child does not hear a question but rather, “They don’t think I can do anything” and second, “Grades are all that matters to them.” He or she hears nagging and second-guessing. Instead, try to ask questions that evince your interest in your child as a person—the same way you would any other person you care about. A CDB parent who is a psychologist told me, “Most parents talk too much.” The best way to get your child to talk is to listen actively, responding to what is said by echoing what you have heard or building on the topic he or she has introduced.

2. E-mail. This will NOT be a you-write, I-write even exchange of correspondence, nor should you send long missives of “counsel.” Perhaps e-mail a link to something your child would find funny or interesting. Try writing just a paragraph a day, reporting on family, on your day, on the family pets. Sometimes it’s a relief for students to know that they are not the focus of attention (read: inquisition) and that YOU are an interesting, engaging person too.

3. Food glorious food. Send your child’s favorite treats. Even if these are purchased, it’s food and it came from YOU. Send microwavable popcorn, cookies, crackers, dried fruit, or protein bars that can be tucked into a backpack for between class snacking. Food is love.

4. Money. Occasionally, put a little extra spending money into your child’s account. Every now and then it can be a glorious treat to be able to order out for a pizza—preferably on the weekends—when boarders are most likely to miss the little joys of home, including unlimited access to food.

5. Visit—but not often. Unexpected visits are not a good idea and can disrupt the adjustment curve. The fall parents weekend is the best time for your first visit after your child has begun school. If a later visit is planned, a weekend of shopping and eating out is an event that students greatly appreciate. Visits give your child a chance to introduce you to some of the important people in his or her life and the opportunity to show you around their campus, making a bridge between what is now for him or her, two different worlds: Home and School.

6. Encourage your child to make new friends and give him or her room to do so. Remember, the school has been dealing with new students for many years. Faculty and administrators will have a plan in place to keep him or her so busy that your child probably won’t realize he or she is homesick. Sports, all sorts of clubs and plenty of homework quickly fill up most days. His or her dorm mates will soon become friends. It won’t be long before you call at the appointed time and your child tells you he or she only has a minute before the so-and-so club meets.

7. Invite friends home for holidays. Get to know your child’s friends by inviting them to visit during vacations and allowing your child the same, even if this takes away from his or her own home time.

8. Allow your child to solve problems. I said this before but I can’t reiterate it enough. DON’T BE A HELICOPTER PARENT!! Resist the temptation to be an over-protective parent. Of course, you are there for your child, but he or she has what it takes to adjust to new situations and cope. Allowing boarding students to solve many of their own problems helps them develop this very important life skill. Encourage your son or daughter to be proactive and seek out adults at school who are there to help them problem solve: teachers, advisors, dorm supervisors, and proctors. They should never feel that they are without supportive people outside their parents.

9. Expect changes. Be patient with yourself and with your child. He or she is maturing, and that is a process that involves changes and mistakes. The first year of boarding school can be full of indecision, insecurities, disappointments and mistakes. It is also full of discovery, personal growth, inspiration, good times and memorable people.

And don’t be hurt when your son or daughter begins to refer to school as “home.” It’s a good sign. Really.

Is your child attending a boarding school? Please share your experiences in the comment section below.

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