I came across an article by Kay Kosak Abrams, a psychologist, that I am reprinting because it has a message for every parent who has ever had to explain why we must say goodbye to something or someone that means a great deal to us. Dr. Abrams shares her thoughts on the necessity of saying goodbye as a child moves towards adulthood. I hope reading her article will make it a little easier for you the next need to help your child with saying goodbye.
Sometimes we try to protect our children from sadness and loss in ways that result in increased fear and anxiety. It is a common misperception that to ignore “saying goodbye” might alleviate painful feelings.
By middle school, most children have experienced the loss of a friend, pet or relative. Separation, loss and reattachment are common and necessary experiences in life. Infants separate and reattach when they nurse and when they sleep. Our children practice separation when they go to a friend’s house or when they go to school. Sleepovers and summer camp are also times to practice emotional and physical separation.
As they grow up, our children move away from dependency in order to master independence over and over and over again. I often remind parents that parenting is about attachment, separation and “letting go,” from the time our children are born to the time we are saying goodbye as they leave for college.
If a child shows signs of regression, such as reverting to bed wetting or clinging with fear when a parent attempts to leave, it is time to step back and think about how to help him or her regain a sense of emotional security. It is never too late to go back in order to rethink a “goodbye” ritual to help your daughter or son adjust to loss.
Here are some tips that may help in preparing children in saying goodbye to a beloved caretaker.
When we experience a sudden or mysterious loss, we are more thrown off than if we had been able to prepare. This is true for young children as well. When babies experience a sudden or extreme change in circumstance, you may see greater insecurity manifested in fussiness and poor adaptation. Some babies and young children show changes in sleep patterns, appetite and general mood, just as we do when we experience significant change or loss.
- When we feel vulnerable and uncertain, just after “the rug is pulled out from under us,” we engage in dependent behaviors that might increase our sense of security. For example, your child may be “clinging” because now he or she is afraid that another person that he or she depends upon will disappear. Increased crying, whining or “baby talk” might secure more care as well.
- In addition to behaviors that secure dependency, we need to work through feelings of sadness and loss, and we might engage in efforts to protect ourselves from further vulnerability of loss. Your child might become bossy and controlling in an effort to ward off any vulnerability. If he or she “mans the ship,” so to speak, he or she can feel in control of who comes and who goes during playtime.
- In order to promote healing and to begin moving forward, start with a simple conversation addressing the caregiver’s departure. You can bring out a photo of the caregiver to help your child with conscious recall. Addressing the truth gently, but directly, is best. Tell your child that the person who left had to go but they still love and will miss him or her.
- If there is a way to communicate with the caregiver by phone, through a visit or sending letters, this will help your child, as will having your child draw a picture and send it to the person.
- Once you have gently and directly addressed the fact that the caregiver will not be coming back, but that he or she is well and can exchange letters and packages, your child will be able to move forward. The significance of a caregiver’s absence will recede with a peaceful, rather than fearful, feeling.
Growing up involves making friends and losing friends. Most parents will need to depend on alternative caretakers at some point prior to preschool. Children benefit from attachment to extended family members, as well as to caretakers. However, when someone they love is leaving, young children need to understand their experience of loss.
Saying goodbye helps us to attach, separate and reattach, thereby making new relationships while holding onto beloved friends who are no longer with us. It is parents’ job to help their children with the transition. Learning how to say “goodbye” is a lifelong skill and a priceless gift we teach our children.
Kay Kosak Abrams is a psychologist in private practice in Garrett Park, Md. Visit www.kayabrams.com for more information.