Friday, July 26, 2013

Parenting: Soothing the Hurt of Good-byes

“It’s time to go now…” (or put your toys away, or turn off the TV, or go to sleep) Many a fight between parent and young child has begun with these words. Why are these transitions such a stress point for parent/child interactions, and how can we think about them more effectively?

 As I pointed out in my last blog posting, I like to give examples because it makes ideas easier to visualize. These can certainly be tried by others, and I am glad if they work for you, as they have for me. But my interest is really not in providing techniques. No technique would work for all children (or all parents), and none would work for any given child all of the time. I’d like to encourage the reader instead to think of the underlying message that the examples try to convey. In this post, we are going to think about the good-bye.

What is a good-bye? We usually say our good-byes when we separate from a person with whom we have spent some time, whether hours or even a minute. It’s a way of acknowledging that the time we spent together, long or short, had meaning, and because of that we find it worthwhile to give a benediction to the person from whom we are taking our leave (“good-bye” is an archaic form, originally meaning “god be with you.”). We as adults do this almost without thinking. But here it is useful to pause and give some thought to those things that seem so automatic to us, but not to our little people for whom everything in the world is new and open to question. If we allow ourselves the moments to do this, we ourselves see the world anew, as through their eyes, and find that sometimes the obvious is in fact profound.

What do children have to teach us about good-byes? What is the tension that comes up when parents try to pull their children away from an activity or a favorite grandparent, or from the quickening world into the darkened bedroom for the night? What is the reason for the screaming, the distress; why, in short, does it appear to hurt so much?

Let’s take an example where we can try to imagine ourselves as we are when we have lost something and feel helpless; to get in touch for a moment with feelings a child might have. In scene “A,” imagine you spent more than you had intended on an item at a department store. You didn’t shop around, grabbed the first item on the shelf and ended up spending $40 instead of $20. You can imagine being disappointed, but would probably find a way to forgive yourself. In scene “B,” you went to the store intending to spend $20, but the item was rung up as $40 and you didn’t notice until later (after you lost the receipt); now you have a very different set of feelings. You may feel mad at the cashier and the store, upset at the injustice of it all, disappointed in yourself for not noticing sooner. In both examples you spent $40 and got the item you wanted – in theory it should amount to the same thing, so why the strong feelings?

What is different is that in the first example you made the choice, even if you had mixed feelings about it. In the second example you found out what had happened to you was not what you had intended. As it turns out that makes all the difference in the world. Losing something is hard, but having something taken away from you can be infuriating, humiliating, and maddening. This is a difference in perspective which goes all the way back to childhood, as we are reminded each time our children react with such hurt and rage to being separated from important people, places or things; and to the realization that these partings are beyond their control.

But, you say, sometimes it’s not their choice: they need to go to sleep, they can’t watch TV for hours at a time, they can’t stay overnight playing with their friends when it’s time to go home. Of course. It’s our responsibility as parents and caregivers to make decisions for them that they can not yet make for themselves. But what we can do is to build in time to help them to say “good-bye,” and what this can do is to help turn a situation that leaves them feeling passive and helpless, into one that invites them to become active participants in the leave-taking.

Ahead are some practical examples of how this can be done. I encourage you to read them not so much as a series of methods, but as examples of how one can think about what is important to your child, and to respond in kind. When my child became infatuated with the moon at around 18 months, before going upstairs for bedtime every night we would make our rounds: “Let’s go say good night to outside. Good night, outside. Good night, moon. Good night neighbors.” Most of you are probably familiar with a children’s book that has a very similar theme. This can work in ways both large and small. When a child protests leaving a toy, ask her “do you want to say good-bye to the ball?” And then help her to really say good-bye to it. Ask her if she wants to say good-bye. Help the child remember the fun she had with the ball, and the fun that she may have again in the morning with it. Maybe say thank you to the ball for being there to be played with. Explain to the child in specific detail why it is time to leave the ball she was playing with: “It’s lunchtime, and we have to go to eat now, otherwise you will be hungry and you know how unhappy you can get when you get hungry.” Having an understanding – in their own way, even if they don’t get every detail of what you are saying, is an important part in helping them feel like they are an active participant in their life, rather than a dragged along bystander. I sometimes think that the very act of explaining with great specificity and earnestness, as I often do with children, my reasons for doing the things I do that affects them, allows them to feel that they are being taken seriously. Of course, I can’t know that for sure, they don’t tell me. But I’ve noticed it often has a calming effect.

Not unusually, my oldest child had a particularly difficult time leaving exciting spots like the zoo, the beach and so on. We would look back before getting into the car to go home, and spend a few minutes reminiscing about what we did there and how glad we were to have been there, and how much we are looking forward to coming back there one day soon. Then I would tell him to have one last look, so he could take something of the place with him by remembering it. The first time we tried this approach he needed to be strapped in screaming into his car seat to get him home, but by the second or third times the tears would stop almost as soon as we began our good-bye routine.

Giving children options is another way of helping them take their leave, of giving up something they feel is important to them, at least in the moment. Rather than “You can’t have brownie until after dinner,” try “You can’t have a brownie now, but do you want to have a brownie after dinner?” Instead of “you need to go upstairs now,” what about “would you like to walk upstairs, or would you like a piggy-back ride upstairs?” Options provide the child with a choice, giving them some level of personal influence within a situation that they can’t have full control over. And I am certainly not one to be above cajoling, gently joking, bargaining and acting silly to help along with the process.

One final example, and this is the most painful one but in some ways also the most relevant. Think for a moment how difficult it is for adults to acknowledge, to talk about, or perhaps even to think about somebody close to them dying, or having died. There is no way to take away the pain of that kind of loss, but the grieving process is really just the biggest and most final form of saying “good-bye.” Those who have had the sadness to have gone through this know how difficult it is. But many find it a help and a comfort to do many of the very same things I suggested to my child as we left the beach: saying “good-bye,” reminiscing, remembering what we are grateful for, having one last moment, and taking something along with us whether it’s something tangible like a seashell, or something less tangible, as a memory. For children, the lessons of learning to say good-bye well to everyday things: a toy, a playground, a play date, or to the last light of a fun day, are small steps towards learning the lessons of what it means to say good-bye to the bigger things in life – which happen to all of us one day. 

About me: I am a Licensed Psychologist in private practice. Among my interests is working with couples on relationship and parenting issues. My office is in Conshohocken, and I can be reached at (484) 534-8830 or at For more information, please see his website at

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