Your child at boarding school calls you to say they are unhappy. What should you do? Educational consultant Rebecca Grappo reassures parents not to panic. The first thing is to assess whether it’s a true crisis call or a reaching out for support, and then act accordingly.
By Rebecca Grappo
I recently received an email from a worried parent who told me that after only three weeks at boarding school, her son seemed unhappy and kept talking about missing his friends back home. She naturally wanted to know if this was normal and what to do.
Having had a child in boarding school myself, I knew that anxious feeling in the pit of my stomach that comes from being far away and not being sure about what was really going on. So this is how I answered her.
It's normal to have ups and downs
It is not unusual for a student to have ups and downs. Sometimes they call home during the low points, unload their unhappiness on their parents, end the call and then go off to be with their friends. They feel better having unloaded on their caring parents, but now it’s the parents who are left holding the bag of their child’s emotions, not sure what to do with it.
Social media and electronics also make it easy for kids to stay in touch with friends back home. It might be necessary to set some boundaries and create expectations so that the student invests in their new school friends and community.
Getting the call: Crisis or not?
The first thing to consider is whether the distress call is truly a crisis call or merely a “reaching out for support” call. Indicators that your child is in the former category will be different from child to child, but the key difference will be his ability to think clearly.
If he is so overwhelmed that he cannot calm down, it’s best to take a directive approach. Perhaps you instruct the child to find their advisor or counselor or school nurse or maybe you can call this person. Your parental instincts will likely guide you on what to do in this situation.
Should this merely be a “I am really stressed out call,” my advice to you is to focus on acknowledging and validating your child’s concerns and feelings. Listening and reflecting often does wonders, and it’s important to remember that boarding school is a huge transition for almost every child. A spectrum of feelings, from elation to loneliness, are all to be expected and are normal. Remind your child that he is not alone in his feelings or in his support system.
What’s really going on?
One way to find out what’s really going on is to stay in touch with the student’s advisor. This is the person who sees your child on a regular basis to talk about how school is going in every area, from his classes to activities, from friends to roommates. This is the “go to” person for most things, and your child not only meets with the advisor individually, but also in advisory meetings with a small cohort of fellow students.
Most boarding schools also have meetings among the teachers who are advisors. These meetings are a place for advisors to discuss students and share observations.
If your son is having an issue in one particular area, then the advisor or other teachers, coaches, and residential life deans can raise the concern to see if it’s being noticed in other areas, too. The advisor should be able to assess your child’s well being across domains and provide feedback to parents.
If your son seems to be happy, engaged, participating, and interacting with peers and friends, chances are there is nothing serious to worry about.
On the other hand, this safety net exists to catch problems before they become major issues. Maybe teachers observe that a student is becoming withdrawn, seems sad, is not participating in class, missing assignments, or is struggling with academics. Perhaps the residence life representative at the table notices that something seems off in the dormitory or dining hall. The school nurse might notice the student seems to be visiting for somatic symptoms on a regular basis, or perhaps the school counselor knows something that needs follow up.
By sharing notes, school personnel can be on alert and observing all kinds of interactions to ascertain whether or not your son is experiencing normal adjustment issues or something more serious that merits further investigation.
The advisor also remains in communication with you as parents so if you hear something that concerns you, you can bring it up in your correspondence. Most advisors are also very happy to discuss any issue of concern in more detail by phone, as long as it is at a mutually agreeable time.
Occasionally, an adolescent will try to “push their parents’ buttons” by making them feel guilty and worry about them. Sometimes they want their parents to let them go home to their friends, when really that’s not in their best interest. At that point, it really might be necessary for you as parents to issue a statement of commitment to the child’s education, at that school.
The best advice I can give you is to not panic with the distress call. Hopefully the school was chosen wisely for its support system as much as for the academics, and there are many adults watching and supervising all the students. If something needs attention, there are many ways that you and the school can work together to support your child. Hang in there!
Rebecca Grappo, M.Ed, is founder of RNG International Educational Consultants, LLC. RNG International provides comprehensive educational consulting, including boarding school placements, to students and families around the world.