Helping Kids Prepare for Goodbyes

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not good at saying goodbye. As a social worker working in schools, my primary role is to work with children and teenagers to help them better identify, understand, and work through their emotions. Even with my training, my tendency is to avoid the emotions of goodbyes and keep them as quick and impersonal as possible. 

Saying a “big goodbye,” as I call them with my clients, is hard, scary, and sad. When I say “big goodbye,” I mean things like death and loss, but also things like a friend moving away, a parent being deployed, or leaving behind a beloved teacher. Adults often assume that kids and teenagers will be “fine” with a goodbye, that they “won’t even notice” the absence of another person, or that they’ll “bounce back” soon enough. And this might be true for some —there are certainly children who are disposed to quick recoveries from emotional distress and who will in fact “bounce back” just fine. But based on my experience, children and teenagers can be deeply affected by these big goodbyes and often need time and space to emotionally prepare for them.

There are a lot of things I learned in grad school that I don’t remember or use (sorry professors), but one important skill I employ is “pointing out endings.” This means that from early on in therapy, the therapist reminds the client of the eventual end of the therapy as they work toward that end together. This is a valuable skill not just in the context of therapy, but one that parents can utilize too. 

Throughout his time on earth, Jesus modeled for us how to appropriately prepare for big goodbyes. He made repeated predictions of his eventual death and consequent departure from his followers. In Mark 9:31, Jesus tells his disciples: “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” Jesus was very upfront about what was coming for him; they were well-informed of his approaching death. We also read the disciples’ response to this information—Matthew describes that they were “filled with grief” while Mark reports that they “did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.” They responded in the same way many of us would have, and it gives us a glimpse into just how human they were. In warning them of what was coming, Jesus intentionally gave his disciples time to prepare for his eventual death, allowing them to work through the emotions that arose with that news. Giving this preparation time communicated to the disciples that Jesus was indeed who he said he was and could therefore be trusted, and adults are able to do the same thing for their children.

In the same way that Jesus did, we as adults can help prepare kids and teenagers for the emotions of major endings, changes, or transitions. When kids are given plenty of warning about the big change, they have ample opportunity to identify and express the emotions that arise for them, and in response a caring adult is there to validate those emotions. Even with repeated warnings, Jesus’ disciples were deeply distraught by his death; can you imagine their distress had Jesus not given any indication of what was coming? The same is true for children; they may still feel upset by a goodbye, but those emotions are often tempered if they have had time and space to prepare for it. 

The reality is that there are a lot of “big goodbyes” in life that we will not see coming, and therefore we cannot prepare children for all endings they will face. The last two years have been full of them. That is why it’s imperative that the anticipated goodbyes are given proper time and attention. 

So parents, follow Jesus’ lead and make the effort to point out endings to your kids. Whether it’s graduation, a new school, an ailing family member, or a big move, give your child the opportunity to properly anticipate and process the upcoming goodbye. This can look like simple check-in questions to gauge your child’s feelings about a particular event, or creating some sort of celebration as a way to honor what is being left behind (drawing a picture of an old house, writing letters to the person who is leaving, etc). What matters most is that your children are given ample opportunity and time to process, and if so desired, share their feelings with you. 

As Jesus prepared to leave, he assured his disciples with this promise: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27). When we walk alongside children through big goodbyes, we have the opportunity to instill this same promise in them. Safe adults are there to help children work through their emotions and simultaneously remind them that the peace of the Holy Spirit is real and true too. We can use endings as an opportunity to help kids know that goodbyes are part of living in our fallen world, but to also know that someday, Jesus will return from his own “big goodbye” to make all things new and put an end to goodbyes forever.

Kaila Thomas is a Licensed Master Social Worker practicing in Austin, TX. She works as a school-based therapist at middle and elementary schools. Kaila graduated from Baylor University with both a Bachelor and Master of Social Work. Kaila enjoys running, visiting friends and family, and going to concerts.

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