How to Help Your Children Say Goodbye

01 Jul 2013 11:38 AM | FIGT Blog Editor (Administrator)

Our family was preparing to leave our expat posting after six years of life there.  Our four children ranged in age from seven to thirteen.  When the weeks of the ‘last times’ came, I began to be embarrassed by my 13-year-old son’s behavior.  A friend, teacher or other significant adult friend would come up and say to him, “Goodbye,  good luck, and it’s been really nice having you as a friend.”  He would look the other direction, act very uncomfortable, and then walk away. I was angry at him for being, what I considered, rude.

Upon further reflection, I realized that he had never been in a position before where he had had to say goodbye as an older child.  He actually did not know the words to say goodbye.  I had thought through what I wanted to say in farewell to people I knew in various roles: close friends, acquaintances, my children’s teachers, co-workers, co-members of groups and associations, household staff.  But I had never helped my children think through those words of farewell.

As parents, we teach our children all the polite words of our culture.  “Please”, “Thank you”, “Excuse me”, “Hello, how are you?”, “I’m fine.”, etc., are all words and phrases that we remind our children of practically in our sleep with the purpose of enabling them to function in polite society.  But I had not taught my children what to say when you are leaving someone who has been your best friend, and the likelihood is that you will never see that person again.  I had not given them those tools.  So, along with being sad and probably angry that he had to leave his home, my son was in an unknown place when it came to voicing the words that make up ‘saying goodbye’ in various situations.

In addition, I believe that saying these words provides a psychological ‘ending’ to verbalize passing through the ritual of  farewell.  It is acknowledging out loud the close of a chapter in our lives; reinforcing in another way that this is really happening, and helping us move through the experience in a more positive way.  When they don’t have these tools, our children will have feelings of embarrassment and awkwardness on top of the other difficult feelings that leaving prompts.

How can we work with our children to teach them these words?  What can we do to help them think through to whom they need to say goodbye, and what is appropriate to say in each instance?  This may change a bit from culture to culture, and also depend on the situation they are leaving behind.  But I do not doubt that a little thought and preparation in this area will go a long way in assisting your child through this time in their lives.

Here is an article you might find helpful, from the weblog of The Forum for Expatriate Management.

Contributed by Norman Viss, an expatriate coach who has many years of broad international experience working with people from a wide variety of cultures, including a 10 year span of living in Nigeria, West Africa, and 22 years in the Netherlands. Currently he lives in the Philadelphia, USA and blogs at the Everyday Expat Support Center


  • 03 Jul 2013 9:43 AM | Aisha from
    Goodbyes are the uncomfortable part of expat life we tend to gloss over and put to the back of our minds. It's no wonder young children are at a loss when it comes to dealing with them - adults aren't much better. I always feel the biggest part of a goodbye is all the things you just don't have the words to say.
    • 04 Jul 2013 5:43 PM | Louise from Thrivingabroad .com
      Thanks for this timely reminder. The last week of school was sad for both my daughters as friends were leaving - we had tears, grumpy moods and a sudden desire to "just go home" from my eldest daughter. So as well as words I think we have to remember that children, just like adults need time to work through their feelings and reactions - and to realise that sometimes to does not feel good - and that it is OK to admit that and to be sad.
  • 23 Sep 2013 2:55 PM | Jill Kristal, Transitional Learning Curves
    Saying Goodbye is such an important and neglected part of leaving and being left. Helping children find the words to let someone know that they have meant something in their lives is a gift for all involved. It is so much easier to leave mad than sad. But that leaves you with unnecessary emotional baggage to drag from place to place. Thanks for this meaningful post.

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