Introduction

It can be tough to say goodbye, incredibly tough. Not just the day to day goodbyes, or the result of death or dying but rather when leaving behind family, friends and special people because we are moving on, travelling, or going on/ending a holiday.

It is so tough in fact that some of us find we are really bad at doing it; we string them out, (think: our own teenage phone conversations ‘you hang up , no you hang up , no you hang up….) we rush, (hurry up, we’re leaving!), we avoid (well it’s easier that way right?) and many other, not so healthy, habits.

We are surrounded by so many other important decisions to be made; itineraries, what to pack, where to stay, and so on, that it can be a lost priority when it comes to thinking about how to enable our children to have a healthy relationship with goodbyes to friends and family. We may pay a moment’s attention to it thinking we have it covered, but then it’s not until we notice our child displaying signs of distress that it dawns on us the constant transitioning is having an impact. Or alternatively, we may worry about this situation too much and don’t feel equipped to handle it so we don’t even embark on our travels. Goodbyes are one of life’s inevitabilities and perhaps we adopt one of the above approaches to cope with it for ourselves but, how do we as parents assist our children through this process and help them to develop healthy habits of saying goodbye?

The whole family needs to be able to acknowledge, anticipate and participate in a methodology that will meet everybody’s needs. Therefore the answer could be in incorporating the following five steps into our travel routines in order to create a family culture of healthy goodbyes. These following five steps when practised and refined over time may ultimately result in happier children, healthier relationships and easier transitions.

Step 1 – As a Parent we Need to Recognise, Acknowledge and Become Secure With or be Willing to Work on, our Own Way of Saying Goodbye.

It is often not too hard to see where our own patterns of behaviour come from when we look at the wider family culture that we have grown up in.

Think for a moment of how our own family ‘did’ goodbyes? The gruff, grunt, pat on the shoulder types? Or, the long drawn out emotional clingy types? Or, perhaps something in between? Whatever it was, how we manage our goodbye rituals with others is the likely way our children will do theirs. They are our best mirrors. The old “do as I say not as I do” saying doesn’t tend to work too well with this ritual. Children are very, very, good at seeing through our facades and will have no qualms about calling us out on it. We are their models and given that our ultimate outcome is to have happy settled children it is in our best interests to first work on ourselves and our own unmet needs.

If we know we have unhealthy ways of saying goodbye it is important to be brave and confront these first. By being able to reflect, seek help and change ourselves and become comfortable about how we do our own goodbye ritual we are then more likely to be able to admit and share our vulnerabilities (in a way that is not over burdensome) with our children. This then forms a basis of trust and allows the flow of all the other steps to happen.

Step 2 – Preparing our Child for the Impending Goodbye.

Some children only need 5 minutes to prepare for change/transitions and goodbyes, others need days. It is about really knowing our children and not being afraid to talk with them, observe them, then experiment with different tactics and if one doesn’t work, admit it, give ourselves a break; trying is the main thing, reflect on it and then try a different one next time.

For children, as is for adults, there is not a one size fits all way to prepare them and meet their needs when it comes to saying goodbye. In our family our 3 eldest sons have 3 very different personalities and ways of dealing with goodbyes.

One is an external processor, ‘wears his heart on his sleeve’ (likes to work things out by talking, lets us know all he is thinking and feeling), is quick to decide but then slow to integrate and engage into a new situation. This child does not need much preparation for the goodbye, but does need a lot of time reflecting, discussing and processing once the goodbyes have happened.

Another is also an external processor, but is very slow to decide and does not like surprises. But, once he has decided, he is quick to engage and integrate into a new situation. He also highly values loyalty. He requires a large amount of time to prepare for the goodbyes that are coming up; plenty of time to discuss, think through and question prior to the goodbye and a lot of security around knowing how the relationship will be continued once the goodbye has happened. Anything less is considered a violation of trust, and a breach of loyalty, to him.

The next child is an internal processor (it is easy to miss what he really thinks or feels as he is easy-going also), but not given the right amount of information or time he will turn into a little pressure cooker that eventually explodes. When preparing for goodbyes he requires quality, rather than quantity, time spent with him. Time where the goodbyes are properly explained, the future plans spelled out using visual props such as maps, and the chance given to reflect on this and then ask any questions. If done right he requires little follow up other than the occasional revisit of memories.

Because of these personality and value differences, how we respond as parents and meet each of their needs with learning to say goodbye, is different for each one. It can be difficult to identify these things, and for us, has come with trial, much error and time. And we still get it wrong often, when we rush, get lazy, or forget. But the consequences of doing so pulls us up quick and thrusts us back into better habits!

Having worked out our own needs in Step 1 as parents, we are then required to be respectful of our children’s needs and differences, in order to be able to respond to them in a meaningful way. We have a much better chance of then going on to create a successful ritual around doing the actual goodbye once we have identified these needs in our children. Part of the ritual can include having the correct language to use for the goodbye. It can be easy for us to assume that our children know what to say but often they don’t and it can be helpful to offer them alternatives and a chance to practise these in a safe situation as preparation.

Step 3 – Planning Follow Up

Pausing for a moment and taking a longer term view of how the relationship is going to be maintained in the future prior to the goodbye happening can be essential. For two main reasons it can be beneficial to be very proactive in this step ensuring it is done prior to the actual goodbye. One, it is easy to forget to do amongst the flurry of goodbyes and future planning. And two, it provides an anchor, assistance and assurance in the goodbye ritual i.e. “we will Skype you when we get to Wellington”.

It is vital to provide practical measures and assurance of follow up for some people, especially those with strong values of loyalty, like one of our sons. This can be done by;
  • Swapping emails, phone numbers, addresses, social media names. 
  • Wherever possible giving tangible children friendly timeframes i.e. “x number of sleeps until you can Skype each other.”
  • Discussing ways to keep in touch, with our child present. 
  • Writing down details, mark on calendars, 
  • Talking about possible times and places we will reunite with one another (they can be hypothetical as even this can be better than nothing for some children).
If the relationship is important to our child we will need to work hard to find a way to keep it alive. This may seem difficult amongst all the changes being experienced as a family but it can be hugely beneficial to the level of engagement and enjoyment our child will have in the ongoing travel experiences.

Step 4 - Establishing a Ritual around Participating in the Goodbye.

Being connected with others is our fundamental drive as humans, and as children we have a fundamental need for connection with our parents; to feel in all ways safe and supported. When this ever evolving connection is strong, gently responded to, and actively sought out, we can blossom as our authentic selves.

The ultimate goal with creating ritual around doing the goodbye is to allow our child the chance to shift the focus of a connection from those that they are saying goodbye to, back to their connection with us as their parent.

While the child is making and playing with a new friend all day their connection temporarily focuses on that relationship. But when that friendship is ended with goodbyes, if a connection is not sufficiently refocused back to the child-parent relationship it can be left floundering causing disconnection; a pining for that fulfilment.

As well as the usual tools for transition such as giving time countdowns, pre-warnings etc. there are further very practical and simple ways to create ritual around shifting the focus of connection when saying goodbye that will allow smooth transition and stronger relationships. These include:
  • Taking at least 5 minutes, before we need to say goodbye to those we are with, and spending it directly interacting with our child; including eye contact, gentle voice, & purposeful close contact. It is a chance to get alongside, and start the reconnection process. Perhaps read a story together, or just sit and have a cuddle and/or a chat, discussing with them and their friend their favourite things allowing the conversation to be real. 
  • From here we can implement any number of tactics that are appropriate to us and our child, perhaps:
- allow our child to draw a picture of saying goodbye
- do a round robin of telling a story of the goodbye   and what each person is going to do when the
  other leaves, keeping it light hearted and fun.
- take a photo or short video
- sing a silly made up goodbye song to everything as we wander around the area our child has been
   playing; each room, each animal, each person.

Then by asking our child if they are ready to leave we are giving them a chance to equalise some power over an otherwise tough situation. If they are not then we tell them we are willing to wait with them, asking what it is they need to do to make them ready.

Provided we have articulated the plans and our own needs clearly enough i.e. we need to be here by this time and I’m getting worried we will miss the plane”, and we have invested in the reconnection process, we most likely will be pleasantly surprised how the child will generally always be willing to support the need to leave at that point. The key to this tactic being successful is being prepared and allowing sufficient time. Start the process with this step in mind and plan time accordingly.

Once we feel our child has begun to make that transition back to being connected with us, we can give them the language needed to say goodbye as discussed with them in Step 2 so they have it ready for the moment.
  • Things such as; "goodbye I will miss you", "I had a really great time", "I’m sad to go and I’ll miss you", "see you later", "see you next time", "bye", "thanks for having us", "see you on the other side", "I can’t wait until we meet again" etc. Whatever is appropriate to that situation.
Then allow them to give the appropriate farewell gesture to which they feel comfortable:
  • A high five 
  • A hug
  • A wave
Just be sure to make it something they are comfortable with and consent to freely. Respect and protect – it can be horrible for a child than to be forced to give someone a hug when a wave is all they wanted, as it can for an adult.

Then leave, don’t delay or stand around talking more, or start packing the car, whatever excuse. Instead actually, physically, leave. It is difficult for a child (and ourselves!) to go through the routine of saying goodbye the first time only to have to repeat it all again in an hour’s time because the ‘adults’ didn’t stop talking!

The key is support, support, support. And we can expect emotion. It is normal and healthy to have this energy in motion. Trusting our intuition is vital on this as we will know if it is disproportionate to the situation and thus need further help from a professional or not. Depending on the child’s age it can look like extreme tears to total ambivalence. It is all just emotion. We shouldn’t shut it down, instead gently validate it, (‘I can see you’re really sad you have to leave? It can be really hard to leave when you have been having fun”). And why not validate our own emotion while we are at it, no harm in giving ourselves a break while we’re on a roll!

Step 5 – Allowing Time and Freedom to Reflect and Review

We need to be prepared to allow our children time to adjust as we begin to regroup and reconnect as a family after we have said our goodbyes and left. It can take time to move back into the rhythm of family life again. Talk about it, acknowledge it, and validate it. Allow our children the chance to process it all.
Practical things we can do to assist this time include:
  • Follow through on promised follow ups, keep them regular and planned where possible
  • Allow them to flick through digital photos/ videos, 
  • Make a photo scrapbook and read it together
  • Discuss funny moments, favourite times and worst times they had together. 
  • Provide hope for the future and reminders of follow up
  • Acknowledge the person they said goodbye to through activities such as; 
- lighting a candle
- mentioning them in a time of gratitude or prayer
- telling a story…’remember the time when”

We may need to do these things 10x a day for the next 100+ days or we may need to do them only once ever. Each child will be different, take their lead, we need to be attuned to this and attempt to be patient with them and ourselves.

Summary

When as a family we are faced with numerous goodbyes because we are moving from one place to another, it is hugely beneficial for us to have the tools and a family culture of healthy goodbyes to deal with these.

When we have so many other things to juggle, particularly if travelling, such as; packing, sorting food, making bookings, it may feel that the steps described require too much time and effort. But, by understanding the 5 steps and applying and practising them as appropriate to our children’s maturity and abilities, it is possible to integrate them into becoming a regular practise and natural family culture that will save us time in the long run.

From personal experience and the observation of others, it seems in the West that we don’t take a lot of time to acknowledge the needs of children particularly when it comes to goodbyes and this can be hugely detrimental to the connection we need to maintain with our children, especially in times of strain that can be prevalent when travelling. Children can experience compounding disconnections and a significant sense of powerlessness when we adults make all the decisions related to where we go, how long we stay and when and who we say goodbye to.

It is often in response to this disconnection and powerlessness, which at a critical moment such as; needing to board a plane, they decide to burst open their justifiable pent up frustrations and fears. Had we taken the chance to properly prepare them and implement the strategies available to us, prior to this spectacular display of raw emotion, it may have saved us a lot of heartache, not to mention time and frustration.

By being prepared to work on our own practises of saying goodbye we are better positioned to assist our children through theirs, and together create a way forward that meets all our needs and provides an enjoyable and sustainable travelling experience.


Do you have any other ideas or experiences, or stories from your family's culture of saying goodbye?  I'd love to hear them.  Feel free to share them below.

Posted by Angela Fraser