When Your Heart Is Breaking Because Your Freshman Is Unhappy

Scrolling through my Facebook feed, I am inundated with posts of friends and acquaintances, dropping their sons and daughters off for their first year of college. I think back to a year ago, when I was doing the same. The excitement. The hopefulness. The nervous anticipation.

What unfolded in the weeks that followed was not what I’d expected—or what I’d heard to expect—of my child’s college experience. Our family’s “college transition story” is a little different than most. But important to share, I think.

To all you moms dropping off your children this year, I really hope that your child will enthusiastically jump into college with both feet first and not look back. (While that might be painful for us moms, of course, that’s what we want, right??)

Your heart breaks when your freshman is unhappy.
Mostovyi Sergii Igorevich/ Shutterstock

But for those of you whose child is having a different experience—this is for you.

For those of you fielding teary calls or frequent texts from a child who wants to come home, or is homesick, or doesn’t fit in, or is just struggling to adjust—this is for you.

For those of you who dread social gatherings or bumping into other moms at the store because it inevitably leads to “How’s Suzy doing at school? Is she just loving it?!?!?” —this is for you.

For those of you whose hearts are breaking knowing your child is feeling lost or unhappythis is for you.

Because this time last year, I was you.

Even though my daughter was excited to go off to college, things did not go smoothly first semester. She was homesick. She didn’t feel like she fit in. She was a non-partier among partiers. She tried out for a play, and didn’t get a part. She applied to be a tour guide, and didn’t get selected. She struggled in a math class and didn’t get the “C” she needed.

She missed us.

She missed her friends.

She missed the dog.

She suffered from FOMO seeing social media posts from friends and family. (In reality, of course, she wasn’t missing anything… her brother was still annoying, her dog was still destroying the carpet, and her mom was still complaining about dirty dishes and messy bathrooms. But from afar, she had visions of all of us sitting around basking in loving family time without her!)

She wasn’t begging to come home, but we knew she was not happy, or not as happy as we were used to seeing her being.

And every run-in with other moms sharing tales of how well-adjusted their child was at college was just a painful dagger in my heart.

Two things I read at the time helped ease my pain and gave me hope that she would, eventually, settle in:

Despite what they say, college is not always the best four years of your life. A more accurate description for most people is the best three-and-a-half years. For some reason time and space tends to erase those early weeks, and we only remember the carefree feeling of independence from our college years.

Homesickness is not really missing your family or even your home, it is missing that sense of normalcy and a routine that you know. Heading off to college is giving up everything that is familiar, establishing new routines, and trying to figure out how to do everything from operating the washing machine to finding your classes.

Is it any wonder that the adjustment can be difficult and take time?

It’s hard to see your child unhappy. Really hard. Our instinct as mothers is to want to run to our children and take away their pain.

So, to all you moms out there whose hearts are breaking for you child. Hang in there. It truly gets better. Give it time. (I’m not going to lie, it took most of first semester for my daughter to adjust and find her place.) Be a listening ear, and encourage your children to get involved—in anything that seems even remotely interesting, even if they don’t want to. They don’t have to stick with it, but they might make a friend, or develop a new interest.

As for my daughter? She did turn a corner. She developed a routine that became her new normal. She learned her way around campus, and around the laundry room. She retook her math class and got a B+. She applied to be an Orientation Guide, and was accepted. She got involved in clubs. She found “her people.”

This year, she happily went off to college to start her second year—yes, this time jumping in with both feet first. As an orientation guide, she spent her first week at school with the new freshmen, showing them the ropes, introducing them to college life, and being a listening ear for those struggling with the transition.

It’s come full circle.


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Michele B. Pennington is wife, mother and freelance writer who loves to travel and cook. She lives in Leesburg, Va., with her husband and three children, Caroline (19), Maddie (17), and William (14), and a naughty dog named Max.


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