Homesick or depressed? Signs to watch for when a child leaves home

For many parents, the start of a new school year means saying goodbye to a teen who is leaving home to attend university or college. While it can be a very exciting time in your son or daughter's life, moving away can bring a lot of anxiety.

Being able to have conversations about what's going on makes it easier for both parents and teens to deal with change.

“It's important to recognize the difference between being homesick and being depressed,” says Dr. Leigh Solomon, a Psychiatrist in North York General Hospital's Mental Health Program. “For many young adults, it may be hard adjusting to living without their parents and can sometimes be overwhelming trying to balance school work, a social life and finances. As a parent, it's helpful to know the signs of depression and how to help.”

Dr. Leigh Solomon, Psychiatrist, North York General Hospital

Dr. Leigh Solomon, Psychiatrist, North York General Hospital

Being homesick can make teens sad, anxious and decrease their level of function, she says. However, after they get used to their new routine, they are themselves again.

Dr. Solomon says these key signs can help you know if your teen is depressed:

  • Significant change in mood – If you notice your teen is always sad, sleeping more than usual and has lost appetite and energy, it may be more than being homesick.

  • Level of function decreases – Going away to school brings more responsibility and less parental oversight. Not performing well in school and not making friends or developing a social life for a long period of time can be signs of depression.

  • Vulnerability – if your son or daughter has learning disabilities, mental health issues or is very introverted, they can be more vulnerable to becoming depressed. It's important to keep in touch often to ensure they are staying on track and easing into the transition.

  • Use of substances – Going off to university and college brings many new experiences, one of which can be trying drugs and alcohol. If you notice your teen is excessively using substances, this can be a sign of trouble.

Moving away for school is a big transition to make at a young age, but with family support and the right tools teens can be better prepared to excel. For some it may take more time to transition, but being able to have conversations about what's going on makes it easier for both parents and teens to deal with change.

If you think your teen may be going through depression, have a conversation with them and consult your family doctor.

This article first appeared in the September 2016 issue of The Pulse.

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